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Getting in touch with what’s inside

Temple: Touchstone Farm gearing up for equine therapy program for veterans and their families set to begin this fall

  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.
  • Touchstone Farm in Temple is readying to begin theraputic veterans programs this fall.

TEMPLE — In one of the paddocks of Touchstone Farm in Temple, two black horses trot, free of bridle or saddle. Some volunteers approach them. Sometimes, the horses allow them to come close for a pat. Other times, they wander off in a new direction. Without leads, there is no way to make the animals do anything that they don’t want to do.

Among the volunteers is Ret. Col. Rich Duncan of Nashua, who is assisting the farm with some of its program building. Occasionally, one of the two horses in the ring will approach him, or allow him to approach them, to give them a pat or a stroke, or allow him to lead them across the ring.

Duncan first became involved with Touchstone during his service in the Army National Guard as a chief of staff. He was involved in assisting returning veterans find programs that helped to integrate them back into society, and Touchstone’s Horse Power program was one that did that. The program had fallen to the wayside for several years, and now, the farm is starting it back up again. And Duncan is once again helping to coordinate veterans for the program.

Horses were a part of Duncan’s own reintegration back into civilian life when he finished a tour in Afghanistan, Duncan said during an interview at the farm on Thursday. Duncan and his wife had a friend nearby that allowed Duncanto help out around the barn, and just being around the horses was helpful. Riding, or even just grooming and socializing with them became a helpful outlet, he said.

“I’ve seen a lot of soldiers come back with issues,” explained Duncan in a phone interview Monday. “I’ve always had a fondness for horses. They’re big, gentle creatures. They seem to have a sense of people. I can’t think of a better way for some people than this program to get into contact with what’s happening with themselves, inside. It may not be for everyone, but I think that a lot of people will find out just what kind of gentle giants they are, and just nice creatures they are.”

Like many service animal-based therapies, equine therapy works because the animals don’t judge, and those working with them can use the way they work with the horses to figure out which interactions will translate into their civilian life.

That is one of the founding bases of the two equine therapy models that Touchstone uses. And it’s the basis of a coming program at Touchstone that will focus on providing support for servicemen and their families.

Boo Martin, director of the farm, said in an interview at the farm on Thursday that several years ago the farm had a similar program in place, providing both one-time and ongoing classes and workshops for veterans, active service members, and their husbands, wives and children. A bout of bad health on Martin’s part led to the program’s decline, she said, and then the consolidation of Touchstone Farm as a nonprofit took priority.

Now however, the farm is in an intensive building period with its staff, training them to be equine specialists in the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship or the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association therapeutic models. Both organizations work with military services in equine therapy, and use both an equine specialist and a mental health professional in working with participants.

“There’s a difference between being assertive and aggressive,” said Barbara Thorngren of Temple, a volunteer at Touchstone helping to build its veteran’s programs who is being trained as an EAGALA equine specialist. “And those are the types of balances people are able to work through with the horses.”

Kathleen McDonald of Peterborough, the communications director for Touchstone, agreed, saying, “The thing is that military personnel are so highly trained to make quick assessments, don’t ask questions, and act. None of that is a great strategy for building interdependent relationships. Building relationships with horses requires a different affect.”

“They have empathy. They have feelings. These are not tools. These are partners,” said Thorngren about the horses that Touchstone employs in its therapies.

George Stolz of Temple, who is currently being trained in both PATH and EAGALA, added that because horses are prey animals, they are more attuned to being threatened. It also means that they are aware when a person is truly being threatening and when they are putting on a mask. “Horses cut through the artifice and get to the authentic self,” said Stolz.

The way that EAGALA and PATH work to reveal the inner emotions of the person working with them is that the horses become a reflection of whatever the client is feeling, Stolz said.

“In the EAGALA model, the therapists are always stating what the horses are doing and asking the client what’s that means,” he said.

If, for example, there is a group of horses with one standing apart with its head down, the therapist will ask what that means. Whether the client replies that the horse is hungry or angry or upset is usually a reflection of what’s happening inside that person, said Stolz. Then the therapist uses that to delve deeper into the feelings of the client.

“It helps them see inside themselves, and lets them relate to what’s going on,” said Duncan, referring to veterans. “It’s just a calming effect. The experience working with an animal can show them how to relate with another being, and can help them in their relationships. It has a lot of different effects, including giving them some insight as to themselves and their relationships with other people.”

Since 2013, the farm has been a location for a New York-based nonprofit to run a week-long intensive Warrior Camp, to assist veterans through equine therapy. Unlike the Warrior Camp, which veterans travel from all over the country to attend, Touchstone is hoping its own programs will provide an ongoing support to veterans who live in the area. Veterans would attend regular classes — the regularity of which will be decided upon once a group of interested veterans is gathered — either alone or with their families.

“It’s nice that they’ll provide continuity for the people that do this, to help with their process,” said Duncan, referring to the ongoing nature of the classes Touchstone hopes to start in the fall. “And people have different needs. Some are going to come out and be fine with a one-time shot, and other people really need a continuous environment where they get to do this on a regular basis.”

In addition to the regular classes, Martin said they also plan to start holding couples retreats for those who have a spouse in the service, as well as “fun days,” when military families can visit the farm for cookouts and games.

Touchstone is also coordinating with other veteran support groups, including Wounded Warrior, to help create a program that is sensitive to military culture and takes into account that working with veterans is different from conducting equine therapy with civilians.

The programs are not meant for only those with knowledge of horsemanship, explained McDonald. Some of the programs that Touchstone will offer will include riding or carriage driving, but both the PATH and EAGALA programs are centered around unmounted horsemanship. The participants are given certain tasks to guide their horse through, whether it to be to lead them across the ring, or over an obstacle, and they must problem solve to achieve their goals.

Martin said that she anticipates having the veteran’s programs in place by this fall.

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