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:
For those that missed part 1 of this series, you can click here to read about Skyroc's humble beginnings.
The Secret to Skyroc’s Growing Popularity
Almost without hesitation, Nate shared the secrets to Skyroc’s early success. “Two things form the foundation and always have from the start: our commitment to quality, and our product variety. Most breweries we visited were too focused with a narrow product line. One location might only produce IPA’s, but if you wanted a lager, you wouldn’t go. Our vision was to produce a great atmosphere offering high quality brews across a spectrum of tastes, from pilsners to lagers and stouts, all with varying levels of alcohol content, some stronger than others.”
But that begged another question - how have they learned to make so many varieties so well? “Experimentation and a commitment to keep learning.” said Tracey. “We would make small batches and test them with people we trusted and knew would give us straight feedback. We continue with that approach today”
Their original vision was to build something that no one had ever built in Attleboro. It started with the idea of the microbrewery, but it has expanded as more people came to know the brand. Not long after opening the location at Riverbank Rd., restaurants started to call them to ask if they could carry Skyroc brands in their bars. Soon, package stores were calling too. Then they had to learn how to package, (canning) their own product to keep up with demand.
Growth has been swift. The first year started with 4 brew tanks, then 3 more were added in year two, and 2 more the next year. Now, there are ten, 500 gallon tanks that are producing non stop. This growth didn’t come without a host of challenges, the first being that the city of Attleboro had an outdated ordinance that would not permit microbrews or distilleries. Today, with Covid, Nate said that finding good employees and things as simple as getting new cans for their product is a major challenge. “No one ever told us that would be our biggest problem, but right now it is and we will figure it out, just like we have from the beginning” added Nate.
Nevertheless, they have adapted and overcome each obstacle with grit and perseverance - the same similar traits that probably existed for all those button entrepreneurs two centuries ago.
From Garage Brew to Local Industry Pioneer. Skyroc Continues to Expand.
Covid has presented challenges to every business in 2020, particularly for the restaurant and bar industry, but despite the circumstances, Skyroc has continued to grow. They now have outdoor seating and have adapted to the new state rules to allow for some indoor seating, while their canning and pick up business has, well, picked up.
The exciting new addition to the Skyroc vision is nearing completion for later this year - Skyroc Distillery. Earlier this year Nate and Tracey made the decision to expand their tap room to include the space next to them to house their new distillery, which allows them to make Skyroc branded whiskeys, vodkas, and other alcohols to serve on site in mixed drinks. The still, which sits in view of their new space, looks like something straight out of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. But don’t be fooled, it is state of the art.
Like the brewing process, Nate had to learn the art of distilling grains to alcohol from scratch, but his mindset from the beginning was, as he said it “to figure it out.”
“The difference between the brewery and the distillery is the aging process - it takes more time to produce and age the product properly. You have to have patience.” explained Nate. “But this completes our vision, which was to have a place where you could get off the train from working in Boston or Providence, and meet someone after work. Or take a short drive downtown on a nice evening to be part of the community.”
The addition allows Skyroc to offer something that has never existed in Attleboro or in the general area - to have a single location that is licensed to cohabitate a brewery and distillery in a single location. They first plan to offer an in-house Vodka-soda mix along with a second product called Skyshine, a corn based family moonshine recipe. Like the Brewery, they will listen to customers and grow from there.
The building and eventual opening of the distillery marks a culmination of the entrepreneurial cycle the is the pillar of any vibrant business community. The people who have contributed, whether it’s electricians, craftsmen, plumbers, or the countless more people who have helped the Cinelli’s build this business, that community is sure to spawn new ideas, new growth, and perhaps entirely new shining industries for Attleboro’s future. As Nate answered with a wry smile to my question about what’s next after all this, “My daughter said she really wants a winery some day.”
So if you find yourself looking to explore downtown Attleboro one of these nice fall weekends, take a stroll downtown in the new riverwalk and allow yourself to end up at Skyroc for a break. You will find Nate and Tracey there greeting customers and treating you like family. You can learn more about their products by visiting their website at https://www.skyrocbrewery.com, on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Skyrocbrewery, or on Instagram @skryrocbrewery.
Skyroc Brewery and Distillery is a thriving example of Attleboro’s past and future.
This story represents the first of what we hope to be many newsletters bringing you stories about the diverse, unique people, businesses and places that make Attleboro such a great place to live and work.
City's History - A Backdrop to the Present
Some 200 plus years ago around the time of the revolutionary war, (yes, that long ago), a nascent button industry started to sprout from the carriage houses and homes in Attleboro. The enterprising craftsman in the area realized there was a booming market for fancy shirt and coat buttons - which were essential to keep the popular long overcoats of the time closed up and looking sharp. Eventually, the quality of those buttons began to signify societal status, and an entire industry blossomed. Over time those craftsmen began to make even fancier buttons, bracelets, watch chains, and rings, which in turn led to adding gold and diamonds for nearly all types of jewelry.
Soon, an entire industry emerged that placed Attleboro as the jewelry capital of the world, producing both jewelry and the manufacturing equipment that made it, and fueling the growth and wealth of this community for the next 150 years. But even as that industry largely left the area several decades ago, the same entrepreneurial spirit has not, and one needs to go no further than a short stroll down the heart of Attleboro’s old jewelry district to find it thriving at Skyroc Brewery and Distillery, the first of its kind in Attleboro history.
From Humble Home Brews to Fast Growing Brand
For those that have not yet visited Skyroc, located down the street from Attleboro Jewelers in a refurbished Balfour Jewelry factory, it is a confluence of the past, the present, and the future. Your immediate reaction to the one-level tap room at 11 Riverbank Rd. would most likely be that Skyroc is unique - a true microbrew of open space, brick walls, and wood framed glass doors that tease you with glimpses of large silver brew tanks towards the back. Behind the large wooden bar, multiple taps emerge from the wall ready to serve freshly brewed beer. Even during Covid, socially distanced customers sit at round tables, enjoying a brew with friends, family, or people that may just be there to share a story. There are no TV’s, meant to keep the experience as a place to meet, converse, and build community. Others arrive to pick up take out orders - the energy is palpable and always positive.
Off to the left of the large serving bar, a second room opens up revealing what is best described as a Willy Wonka type copper topped whiskey still, with oak barrels for aged moonshine stacked in neat rows across another wall. This is the Skyroc distillery which is nearing completion and set to open later this year. (More on that later).
In just a few years since Nate and Tracey Cinelli founded Skyroc in 2016, it has become one of the most popular destinations and brands in the area. Today, Skyroc produces more than 3,500 gallons of its own craft beers per week, distributing over 18 beer and spiked seltzer labels at their tap location, through more than 65 package stores, and an estimated 150 restaurants in the greater area.
They were kind enough to take an hour out of their very busy day to share their story with us - and what a great story to pass along to you.
“It really started about 10 years ago when Tracey gave me a home brew kit for Father’s Day. Our whole neighborhood was into home brewing, and we were always trying everyone’s new beer,” explained Nate Cinelli, who recently retired as a police officer to focus on all of the brewing and distilling at Skyroc, “and what began as a hobby in our garage and kitchen became a passion, which then evolved into a vision for success.”
“Pretty quickly, our family vacations were being planned around touring a new microbrew somewhere in New England. “ added Tracey, “We asked a lot of questions and absorbed every ounce of information we could.”
When Tracey’s corporate job was eliminated in a round of layoffs nearly six years ago, they knew that it was the time to go all in. Like many great entrepreneurs, they learned to ask the right business questions and to understand their specific market for their product vision. The pivotal moment to go full steam occurred after a particular visit to a brewery in Maine. “The product at this microbrew was not impressive, but they were already selling in four states.” Said Nate. “We knew we already had an outstanding product, and if that other brand was successful, then we could do this.”
A Family Business with a Focus on Family
Perhaps one of the most endearing elements to the Skyroc story crystalizes when Nate and Tracey talk about their work/life balance. Both made the decision from the outset that their values were family first. “We didn’t want a business so consuming that our kids resented it because we weren’t there for them.” Tracey explained. “When we started, we decided to be open to the public for 15 hours per week, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and that is the schedule we keep today. It allows us to stay involved with our kids’ lives, sports, and school.”
This core value extends beyond their own family and into how they treat customers. “We want people to feel like they are family when they visit.” she added. But the limited hours for the bar doesn’t mean this isn’t a full time job. Just the opposite, as the brewing and now distilling process are running all the time even when the tap room isn’t open. If they aren’t brewing, the small group of loyal employees is canning, cleaning, and preparing for the next batch.
With all that said, family first is the mantra at Skyroc. Even the name Skyroc reflects a combination of family names. “Each of the names chosen for our products is connected to a person or to some part of the history of Attleboro.” Nate explained. Some of the many examples include its popular 14K and 24K beers, Balfour’s Brown Ale, or Bomber Seltzer. Whatever the name, both view each product that is served on sight or that is shipped to be sold elsewhere as having their name on it, and the taste has to represent the highest quality.
COMING UP NEXT...Part 2 - The secrets to Skyroc's success, and big plans for the future.
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.