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Newmarket’s Horses at Heart harnesses healing powers of horses to benefit teens, young adults

The non-profit combines horseback riding and horse care with personal development excersizes and clinical therapy, growing participants' confidence, social skills, and emotional awareness as they form a special bond with their horse

Visiting WaterStone Estate and Farms is like stepping into another world.

Nestled on 100 serene acres of rolling fields, mixed forests and trickling streams, it’s well worth the scenic drive to the edge of rural Newmarket.

What might not be apparent at first glance, however, is the beauty that goes on within the barns. Home to Horses at Heart, a registered non-profit since 2004, WaterStone Estate and Farms has helped countless youth and adults achieve personal fulfilment and growth — all through the healing power of horses.

“When they come to the barn, the idea is that this is a safe place. When they come to volunteer for the day, it’s a place that no matter what other stuff is going on in their life that could be challenging, they can have a good day, a positive day, from beginning to end,” said Deborah Weiss, executive director of Horses at Heart and owner of WaterStone Estate and Farms.

Weiss, an experienced equestrian, has a special connection to her work.

A former music and television professional, she was inspired to start Horses at Heart after seeing horse trainer Chris Irwin successfully use similar techniques to form a mutually respectful and trusting bond with what had earlier been a group of “dangerously unmanageable” horses. The concept appealed to Weiss: could the same method be applied to interpersonal relationships as well? The answer, she soon found, was a resounding yes.

“The beauty of working with the horses is that even when you’re just walking or feeding them, there’s a lot of metaphor in the way they are that awakens emotional awareness in people,” said Weiss. “You find out things about yourself just by what’s happening to the horse in your hand.”

Horses at Heart’s Trailblazer Training program deftly combines horseback riding and horse care with personal development exercises and clinical therapy, growing a participant’s confidence, leadership, and social and emotional skills as they form a special bond with their horse. Participants volunteer labour around the barn, such as filling troughs and mucking stalls, and enjoy horseback lessons and rides in return.

Their progress on the farm is supplemented with a weekly two-hour support session, currently online, that uses a technique called neuroplasticity to personally foster emotional awareness, anxiety management, methods to handle bullying and more.

Approximately 30 participants go through the Trailblazer Training program alone each year. Horses at Heart’s other volunteer programs, like Back In the Saddle — designed for adults who have left the workforce due to mental health issues and wish to reenter with supports — offer older adults the chance to benefit from equine therapy as well.

For the participants, some of whom are referred by the Canadian Mental Health Association, alternative and special education, homeless and at-risk youth organizations, and mentorship programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of York, Horses at Heart is a welcome — and idyllic —  12-week escape from the turbulence of everyday life.

“Coming to this camp helped me to separate myself from the stress of my city life and get out of my old habits” said 22-year-old Horses at Heart volunteer George Mardari. “It helps you detach from all that stress and see things with a new perspective.”

For some Horses at Heart volunteers, the program isn’t their first rodeo —  pun intended. Fifteen-year-old Spencer Lu initially attended Horses at Heart as a volunteer participant, but has since returned as a volunteer in his own right.

“I thought it would be extremely exhausting, but in reality, when I came here, I was already extremely exhausted. After it was done, I felt re-energized and ready to go,” said Lu. "I really enjoyed it.”