Working with farm animals, differently

Skye--herd boss and lead animal practitioner at Healing Hooves in Alberta.

Skye--herd boss and lead animal practitioner at Healing Hooves in Alberta.

Six years ago (2003) I came to Bella Coola, an isolated settlement of about 1800 (half of the population is First Nations) on the west coast of British Columbia (nearly 500k from the nearest stop light!), to complete my Anthropology fieldwork for my MSocSc degree. I planned to stay only for 3 months before returning to New Zealand, where my husband and new home were. However, I fell immediately in love with this remote village, and was soon offered a 4-month contract with the Bella Coola General Hospital, which rapidly evolved into a permanent position. My husband joined me later that year, and soon found employment with the First Nations high school; we bought a property and began making our home in the valley.

Unfortunately, in 2006 I lost my job, due to an economically driven restructuring of the United Church Health Services. In 2007, I moved without my husband to work at the Saskatchewan Population Health and Evaluation Research Unit at the University of Regina. After nine months of living away from my home, my husband and everything I loved—including this community—I quit my job and returned to Bella Coola, with a view to making myself useful to the community once again, while being supported by my husband’s wage. About two weeks after returning to my home, my husband was let go from his employment (a sudden decision made by the newly elected First Nations Government, which disrupted the school and dismantled the entire education authority). We were lucky that he managed to get temporary employment with the School District last year, which has held us over until now. However, after June 26th of 2009 we will both be unemployed, as the person he replaced last year has since returned to work.

Because I love this community, I have been researching the needs and gaps in services with a view to once again making myself useful, employable and able to contribute to the community through paid employment in a meaningful way. While working for the United Church Health Services, I got the opportunity to see first hand the gaps in Social Services in our community. It is a remote First Nations community that struggles with a cycle and history of alcoholism and sexual abuse; the direct result of colonization. One of the key gaps in service in our community, identified by the Social Health and Economic Development Society (an organization founded by myself and two colleagues to research and address gaps in social services in our community), is professional Drug and Alcohol Counseling service. Another critical need identified  through discussions with the Mental Health Department manager is qualified professionals with a specialization in autism. Bella Coola has a high rate per capita of autism, yet these people, in particular, have very limited support largely due to the small population and remote location; they often fall through the cracks entirely because of the limited, but strict, parameters issued by the Ministry. The Ministry of Children and Families struggles to fill the Child and Youth worker position and finally there is no couples therapist.

After speaking with the other mental health professionals in the valley and hearing about these community needs, I realized that if I got some professional training and experience I could help fill some of these social service gaps, and have since applied to take a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology (scheduled to begin September, 2009). Instead of being a regular ‘talk therapist’, I plan to work with my farm animals as co-facilitators of the therapeutic process. I have been researching and learning about the exciting and burgeoning field of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling for several years, and have just completed my second level of Equine Facilitated Mental Health in Cremona, Alberta. In September, I will take the third (and final) level of the courses at Healing Hooves. These courses count as continuing education units for the Canadian Counseling Association, and together with the Counseling Psychology degree (and a host of other prerequisites) will lead to certification by Equine Facilitated Mental Health (with the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association) and by Equine Facilitated Wellness Canada.

An intimate moment shared between two 'gents'.

An intimate moment shared between two 'gents'.

My long-term vision is to provide effective counseling services, specializing in Animal Assisted Therapy, to foster recovery, healing and growth through a program delivered in partnership with animals where appropriate, as well as using nature as a therapeutic tool. In order to support my Animal Assisted Therapy career goals, I have developed a small hobby farm and have already taken in several animals with a history of abuse. I give them a safe environment to heal themselves and learn again to trust humans. From the experience I have had to date, along with the research into this burgeoning field, I know these animals’ stories will help me develop a rapport with the clients I plan to work with. Often, the trust between animal and therapist fosters the development of trust between client and therapist as well. Animals can also foster relationship with people who struggle in ‘normal’ social situations. Attachment is a basic need and drive of all human beings (and animals!). Everyone needs to feel a certain security in order that development proceeds as nature intended. This development is not guaranteed in humans, and animals can play a crucial role in rebuilding these relationships. Autistic people, in particular, respond to animals positively in a therapeutic environment.

Max is an animal practitioner in the making. He came to the course with his Clinical Psychologist owner.

Max is an animal practitioner in the making. He came to the course with his Clinical Psychologist owner.

The Healing Hooves workshops will benefit anyone looking to explore incorporating animals into their therapeutic work. The workshop topics are covered through a mix of discussions, presentations, demonstrations and hands-on experiential exercises. They include opportunities to apply the theories learned to different client populations and scenarios through real life case studies, practice work with the horses, personal growth opportunities and interactions with Healing Hooves volunteers and former clients.

Other links and resources in the Animal Assisted Therapy field:

Dreamcatcher Association (Nature Assisted Therapy)

Healing Hooves (Equine Facilitated Wellness)

CANTRA Equine Facilitated Wellness (Certification body)



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6 responses to “Working with farm animals, differently

  1. This is amazing! Best of luck with this new project. It sounds just incredible. I wish we had something like this going on here (although we have therapeutic riding, which is similar).

  2. John Cuthand

    I have often wondered about people with the best of intentions who come into Aboriginal communities and impose solutions that don’t spring from the Aboriginal people themselves.

    • Yes, it is a familiar story that one and I have seen it in New Zealand, Australia and here in Canada. The Aboriginals I have met have all said the same thing, “We need to heal ourselves.” Our governments are not good at (or incapable of) asking the question, “What do you need and how can we help?” and then listening to the answer and truly supporting it. Until we can do that we will never have a partnership of equals in this country and continue to be meddlers in the affairs of First Nations driven by an unspoken, unacknowledged agenda of continued control. As I see it, asking the question and stepping back from the control is the only way forward.

    • Nelly

      And what is it that you wondered?

  3. Well, what a collision of two worlds for you. This sounds absolutely perfect!! You will excel. As always. xo

  4. As ever a potent post, I wish you luck with the bureaucracy and inevitable struggle for funding. Your dedication will see you through.

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