Located at the end of a winding dirt drive just over the Hinesburg town line in Monkton is a nonprofit horse farm dedicated to helping people cope with emotional distress.
The majority of riders at Native Heart Healing are cancer patients and survivors. The organization also helps people with post-traumatic stress disorder due to a past trauma or history of abuse.
Peggy Murray is one of the directors of the equine therapy program, along with Linda St. Amour, Lois Griggs, Susan Phelps and Carmel Stone. Murray has been a horse trainer for 30 years and has spent much of that time using her love of horses to help others.
“The horses, they can sense what people need,” Murray explained. “They can read what you are feeling. That’s why you should never go into a horse barn in a bad mood.”
The five women met half a decade ago through Murray, and bonded over a shared interest in helping support others through trauma and illness. The resulting organization, Native Heart Healing, is now in its second year.
“All of these board members, we all have the same goal. We want to make people happy,” Murray said. “We’re just five women determined to help some people.”
It was co-director Linda St. Amour who first introduced Murray to Gypsy Vanners, a breed of large work horses native to the British Isles. These horses are often characterized by long flowing manes and tails, with feathering on the lower legs. They are typically colored a distinctive Tobiano pattern of black and white. But the most important characteristic of a Gypsy Vanner – at least at this barn – is the breed’s gentle personality.
A gentle breed for important work
According to co-director Lois Griggs, Gypsy Vanner horses were originally used to pull caravans of nomadic people living in Britain and Ireland. The horses lived and worked with the families, often traveling with them for life.
“They are 100-percent family-oriented animals,” Griggs said.
If a horse was aggressive, she explained, the families wouldn’t breed it. The resulting gentle temperament makes Gypsy Vanners ideal therapy animals. It’s certainly apparent in the Native Heart Healing barn where the horses, Frankie, Locksley, Tanzy, Zoe, Decon and Gypsy Rose poke their noses over the stall doors and whinny with interest at the visitors who come to see them.
Murray taught each of these horses to carry riders and to pull carts. Native Heart Healing has about 6-8 regular participants who engage in therapeutic activities with the horses, ranging from riding and driving the horse carts to grooming them and simply relaxing in the barn.
The directors say they conduct sessions like these throughout the warmer months, but don’t typically operate in the winter, as temperatures often become too cold for the participants to be outside. They do have a sleigh, however, that comes out for a bit of winter fun.
Lydia Fuller of Hinesburg comes to Native Heart Healing on a regular basis with her 5-year old granddaughter, Aubrie, who is a therapy participant. Aubrie enjoys sitting on the high cart seat beside Murray and helping to drive one of the Gypsy Vanners around the riding arena and through the green fields of the Monkton property. She also sometimes rides the horses, under the careful guidance of Murray on one side and Griggs on the other.
Fuller says the horse therapy is helping her granddaughter to cope with the loss of her mother, Pamela Price, who died last summer of a gunshot wound. The tragedy, ruled a suicide by the state medical examiner, rocked the community where Price was a well-liked member of the Fire Department.
“It gives her something to concentrate on,” Fuller said of Aubrie. “It gives her something of her own, something to do.”
Aubrie has bonded closely with the 8-year-old filly Gypsy Rose, who Murray says always “lights up” the minute the 5-year-old walks into the barn.
A powerful bond
This connection between human and horse is one that the directors say they see often at their barn. Frequently, they say, the cancer patients they work with develop an “unspeakable bond” with a particular horse.
When one former participant, Brenda, passed away earlier this year, it was the gelding Locksley, along with several pallbearers, who brought her casket on a cart to its final resting place.
“You gotta know what these guys can offer,” Murray said of the horses. “What their big heart and soul can do for a person.”
Loss is a familiar experience for the directors, who work so closely with cancer patients and survivors. A driving force behind the nonprofit is the fact that each of the directors has lost a relative or a friend to cancer. The organization has lost two of its participants to the disease in just the past year. Even the woman who owns the Monkton property they rent is a breast cancer survivor, according to Murray.
As St. Amour emphasizes, the healing that Native Heart offers is purely emotional. None of the directors have had any formal medical or therapy training before starting the nonprofit.
Instead, they say their knowledge comes from life experience in other fields. Murray’s background in horse training; St. Amour’s degree in psychology and Stone’s knowledge of Reiki, all contribute to the work that they do for their members.
St. Amour also says that several group members are working toward becoming certified therapy workers through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
A role for animals in healing
While animal-assisted therapy has not always been acknowledged as a genuine treatment method by the medical community, St. Amour believes there has been a shift in recent years toward recognizing the benefits that interacting with animals can provide.
A 2014 study from Ohio State University found that equine therapy improved symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Today, animal-assisted therapy programs involving small animals such as cats and dogs can be found in many places including prisons, nursing homes and hospitals.
The therapy method also is gaining prominence in popular culture. For example, Ann Romney, wife of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, has spoken openly about the way horses helped her both emotionally and physically during her battle with multiple sclerosis.
Even so, St. Amour said horse therapy is not typically covered by the insurance plans of Native Heart’s participants who gravitate to the barn on their own, rather than from a doctor’s recommendation.
If participants are able to pay, there is a suggested donation fee for the therapy sessions. However if someone simply does not have the means to pay and doesn’t have anyone else to sponsor them, St. Amour says Native Heart will not charge. Instead, the organization relies on grants and donations to fund their work.
“To try to put it in writing, or to explain what these people get out of it, I can’t really do it. All I can tell you is that for that hour that they’re here, the outside world doesn’t exist,” Murray said. “To make somebody happy for that little bit of time, help them believe that there’s something more in life, that’s our goal.”
The directors of Native Heart Healing and one of their Gypsy Vanner horses will take part in Hinesburg’s “United We Stand” Independence Day parade this Saturday.
Joining gelding Frankie with his cart will be their special guest, Aubrie.