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War Horse Project helping soldiers

Sarah Hyatt

Cpl. Andrew Latulippe and Marie Reaume enjoy a visit with Dakato during a War Horse Project session this October.

SARAH HYATT/DAILY OBSERVER Cpl. Andrew Latulippe and Marie Reaume enjoy a visit with Dakato during a War Horse Project session this October.

LAURENTIAN VALLEY – Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

For years, horses have fascinated humans. Their spirits soar with each step they take. They can lighten one’s spirit with their perfect fusion of strength and gentleness.

Worldwide, horses are known for their beauty, loyalty, courage and speed.

And here in the Upper Ottawa Valley, they’re helping soldiers to cope with stress, anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

This July, Hope Reins Equine Assisted Therapy launched the War Horse Project, a 16-week program that involves horses to facilitate physical, mental and emotional healing.

The new therapy program is proving Churchill was well ahead of his time.

The program evolved to help Canadian Forces members, veterans and first responders struggling with the after effects of trauma, program director Alison Vandergragt said.

In the last few years, Hope Reins in partnership with a number of other organizations, including the Phoenix Centre for Children and Families, for example, have come to learn while there are a number of services available for children suffering – there is not much help for parents or adults, the program director explained.

In another pilot project with the Phoenix centre, a team encountered and discovered a number of families who were struggling to manage behaviours with their children, and it became apparent that a traumatic brain injury and/or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was a significant factor in the families’ dynamics.

With these realizations, the War Horse Project came to be, with the hopes to help those affected by PTSD or Operational Stress Injuries.

The first group of eight men and women who are nearing their completion of the program recently talked about their experiences and growth with The Daily Observer.

Sgt. Graham Ridley said the program has especially helped him with learning to cope and deal with his anxiety and panic attacks. “This has also been a huge confidence builder for me,” he added.

The cost to run the program is about $12,000 for one 16-week period, at three hours a week. Funding was not secured, but a dedicated team determined to get the program running, volunteered their time.

The team of four, which includes two mental health professionals and equine specialists, has logged hundreds of volunteer hours, Vandergragt said. The Forbes family on B-Line Road has generously donated the use of their facility and horses, making the program easily accessible to those in Garrison Petawawa.

For Sgt. Ridley, on Fridays when he makes his way to take part in the equine therapy, it’s his favourite day of the week, he said.

How it works, the program uses the nature of horses to reveal the skills required to rebuild, repair and enhance the personal life and relationships of participants.

In other words, participants of the program learn to strive towards building a well-balanced relationship with the horses, these skills are obviously transferable, it was explained.

“That’s the big appeal about this program, it’s so outside-the-box,” Sgt. Ridley said. “There’s no uniform or office.”

At the beginning of the program, the group of eight decides on a number of set topics or issues that they’d like help with through the program.

One Friday, for example, the group tackled forgiveness. Actions or obstacle courses with the horses are then determined and planned for that day specifically with that topic in mind. And with very tailored and specific exercises, soldiers learn the skills they need to be successful with the horses, but in life too.

“It’s such a comfortable setting here,” Sgt. Ridley said. “It’s easy to get it all out here.” While days are scheduled with specific exercises and topics, talk isn’t always planned. “You kind of surprise yourself out here,” Sgt. Ridley said. “You hear certain words or issues and you’re like ‘no way,’ but then it just comes out and it’s OK and it wasn’t that hard. There’s someone here who can relate to you too and you can’t put a price tag on that.”

Cpl. Andrew Latulippe, who also participated in the first run of the program, shared some similar views as Sgt. Ridley. “It’s been a soothing experience,” he said. “Learning to care for and understand the horses emotions,” he explained.

The corporal has also especially enjoyed interacting with other soldiers in similar situations as him. “I just leave here in a better place,” Cpl. Latulippe said, prepared and ready to deal with certain situations. “The people here care and with the horses, it’s nice to feel wanted. They make us realize and believe again that there are great things life to appreciate.”

But while the project has been a success according to participants, moving forward, the War Horse Project may be trouble if some sort of funding is not secured. More than 400 hours of volunteer work just isn’t feasible moving forward, Vandergragt said.

Hope Reins is welcoming ideas and appealing to the public for ways to continue the program. Hope Reins is always in need of volunteers too.

For more information visit, or email or

Sarah Hyatt is a Daily Observer multimedia journalist.


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