Equi Evolution teaches a new way to treat mental health through the connection between humans and horses.
Tucked on the border of Attleboro and Rehoboth lies a small, unassuming horse farm like so many you may have driven by in the area. Quaint, and quiet by design, you’d never know of the pioneering results for those with PTSD, anxiety, depression and many other mental health needs that occur in the small pasture each day with the six beautiful horses living here.
While Attleboro’s heritage is tied closely to our equine friends, (the city of Attleboro originated with a land purchase from Rehoboth in 1694 because the locals were tired of the 8 hour round trip horse and buggy ride to the nearest church,) their value to our lives has evolved. No longer seen as simple working farm animals or modes of transportation, horses occupy a space that is far more refined. That relationship forms the foundation of Equi Evolution’s story. Full disclosure, I am on the Board of The Evolution Foundation (a non-profit), but I met Sam Thorpe, the Founder and Director, through local youth baseball. It was only last year when I heard her inspiring story and the vision of her budding operation that I became more involved.
In the World of Mental Health Treatment, Equi Evolution is Unique
Almost immediately upon walking onto the farm, you see the fenced-in pasture where the small herd spends most of its time. Not far away is a newly built barn, recently completed after a fire earlier this year burned the previous to the ground. In the distance, a small flock of guinea hens scurry noisily about, while a couple of friendly little farm dogs run up as if to say welcome. You feel both a sense of ease and curiosity that compels you to keep walking further.
The horses themselves are beautiful, majestic, animals whose bodies, some brown, others white, and all laden with muscle, always seem larger than what you remember from the last time you were in their presence. Yet when they slowly approach with those deliberate, almost mesmerizingly long steps, you can see that they are curious about you as well, and that they are clearly thinking, perceptive creatures. They glance at Sam to get some sense of how she is responding to this new person, displaying an intellectual and studious awareness of their surroundings. As if taking a cue from some non-verbal communication Sam has clearly developed between them, one approaches from a short distance away to sniff my hand, perhaps to see if I had brought some treats, then allowing me to scratch his neck. Just like that, I feel the pressure of my day dissolve.
In a time when mental health is at a crisis point, and treatment is often limited to prescriptions, Equine-Facilitated Learning (EFL) offers a pioneering approach where the focus is to address root causes of many mental health issues. Equi Evolution’s specialty is to offer therapeutic, experiential learning programs that facilitate meaningful interactions with horses to improve mental health and wellness. It seeks to provide children, adolescents, adults, and families the tools to navigate life in a joyful way.
Sam explains the subtleties of her programs that make it so unique. “We are not traditional mental health therapy, although what our clients experience is extremely therapeutic.” She says. “Unlike other farms that might offer physical or occupational therapy programs that involve riding, our clients do not come to the farm to ride horses; rather, our programs specifically and exclusively approach mental health growth by engaging directly with a majestic living creature. We facilitate this engagement in a safe, quiet, private environment, free of the external “noise” that can be the root cause of many mental health issues.”
Most of her clients come to her having no experience with horses, but nearly all have endured the devastating effects of different types of mental trauma, many times caused by external forces beyond their control. “My staff and I act as guides for our clients. We all have extensive backgrounds working with horses and specific training for how to help others in mental health need through our programs.”
Why Are Horses Different for Mental Health Treatment?
One of the obvious answers to this question is the sheer size of the animal. But horses are naturally graceful, peaceful creatures, and this combination, when working with Sam’s team, allows her to foster self-empowerment for clients who lack self belief. A second element is the act of developing trust with an enormous animal that is perceptive and lives in the present moment. These animals naturally have a way of putting humans into the same state of mind. Finally, Sam continues, “Bonding with horses, when it does happen, is a truly unique experience.”
A primary goal of EFL is to gain mindfulness. “Horses are naturally mindful, very perceptive, peaceful creatures that live in the moment all the time. The farm is quiet, which adds to the ability to let go and become aware of surroundings.” she explains. “Just being amongst a herd has a physically calming effect.”
“Which Horse Are You?”
Sam, who is certified in Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) through The HERD Institute, has over 20 years of experience coaching and helping build the confidence and self-esteem of youth in her community. She also volunteers at Greenlock Therapeutic Riding Center in Rehoboth, MA where she works with children facing developmental delays. Equi Evolution employs two additional facilitators each with decades of experiences with horses and backgrounds in psychology.
Equi Evolution offers private twelve-week programs, with sessions once per week, one hour per session. Most of any session is spent in the pasture with the horses, but each client and session can be very different.
Many times, Sam begins the first session by simply asking “Which horse are you?” to begin the process of building authenticity. Just watching the herd interact, run, and sometimes play, her clients will begin to recognize the unique characteristics of each horse and then identify with one (or more) of them. Sam also spends many sessions on simple breathing exercises or meditation to learn to calm the mind and to be present in the moment. As the sessions progress, others become more hands-on around the farm as they want to learn about horsemanship and dive in.
“Horses have always been seen as something we ride, but there is so much more to them.” Sam explains. “Horses are herd animals, and develop a social structure similar to humans.” This trait makes it easier for her clients, many of whom may struggle with their own standing in society, to relate to what they see in the pasture in a completely non judgemental, non-threatening way. Second, the experience allows clients to develop trust with an enormous animal. Sam facilitates this trust through simple actions like grooming, haltering, and leading the animals through the pasture. This trust with such a large animal is a foundation to trusting yourself and building amazing confidence in her clients.
Growing Need Drives Demand While Creating Unique Business Challenges
The programs have produced results nothing short of amazing. Instead of just treating the symptoms, the program allows healing from the causes of the underlying mental wounds, and begins to build the foundation that leads to a joyful, productive life. It is so effective that many clients continue regular sessions longer than the initial 12-weeks and maintain lasting relationships with the herd.
Since opening in 2019, she has already seen more than 200 clients from all over New England, averaging nearly 15 per week. Her work is also gaining national attention with speaking requests and even international interest from other farms as far aways as Australia, who have asked her to consult with their own operations for treating mental health. Sam describes her vision as evolving, much like the name of her company. “Our goal now is not necessarily to have everyone in the world served at our farm, but rather to have the experiences and knowledge gained on our farm exported to the world.”
This growth, however, doesn’t come without challenges, and this is where you can help. Her sessions are not covered by insurance, and require a fee of up to $2,400 for the full 12 week program, all paid out of pocket. “It is not an inexpensive operation. Horses cost a lot of money to feed and care for. An unexpected vet bill can run into the thousands of dollars,for example.” She adds. And while she has nearly reached a break-even point in just a short period of time since starting operations, her real goal is to make the programs more affordable and sustainable.
We Can All Choose to Make a Difference
“The challenges that we face to fund operations while maintaining a price structure that is affordable also present the opportunities for others to become involved.” said Sam, who has established the Evolution Foundation. The Foundation allows anyone to make donations as small as $20 and higher to fund the feeding and care of the herd. “We find that many people want to contribute to solving the mental health crisis in our society but don’t have a clear path for how to do so. These contributions not only provide care for beautiful animals who deserve it, but also help to offset the costs of the programs for our clients in need.”
You can learn more about The Evolution Foundation and donate at https://www.equievolution.org/donate. In addition to the Foundation, Sam also raises funds through group sessions and retreats, but she adds that the core focus of her business is treating individuals.
Visit the Farm to Learn More
For those that would like to meet Sam, her staff, and of course the horses while experiencing the farm first-hand, Equi Evolution has planned an open house event for Sunday, November 8th, 2020 at 10:00 AM - 3:00 PM EST. The farm is located at 36 Slater St., Rehoboth, MA., just over the Attleboro line.
If you can find the time to visit, I’d highly encourage it. This is one of those stories that resonated with me as soon as I heard it, and I’m certain you will find it as inspirational as I have. If you cannot attend, please consider donating by visiting the links above. Covid has driven mental health related issues to an all time high, and Equi Evolution is at the forefront for bringing amazing results and value to our community.
In the end, this is how great communities grow and thrive. Even in times of uncertainty for us all, we come together to support the people dedicated to helping those in greater need.
Here are additional ways to learn more:
About Kelly Crowley : Kelly Crowley is a Licensed Real Estate agent for Keller Williams Realty. Kelly has lifelong ties to the area and a keen understanding of the marketplace through her personal history and extensive knowledge of the varied communities she serves.