Ruth Bartesko gives some love to Fanny the Shetland pony during an Equine Assisted Learning session at Heart Lake Farm on March 8. Bartesko is one of several participants from the Victoria Brain Injury Society to take part in the new program. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Ruth Bartesko gives some love to Fanny the Shetland pony during an Equine Assisted Learning session at Heart Lake Farm March 8. Bartesko is one of several participants from the Victoria Brain Injury Society to take part in the new program. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Ruth Bartesko gives some love to Fanny the Shetland pony during an Equine Assisted Learning session at Heart Lake Farm on March 8. Bartesko is one of several participants from the Victoria Brain Injury Society to take part in the new program. (Nina Grossman/News Staff) Ruth Bartesko gives some love to Fanny the Shetland pony during an Equine Assisted Learning session at Heart Lake Farm March 8. Bartesko is one of several participants from the Victoria Brain Injury Society to take part in the new program. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Greater Victoria brain injury survivors harness power of equine connection

Humble Hooves, Heart Lake Farm and Victoria Brain Injury Society team up for new program

With a gentle sniff, kind eyes and flicker of her fuzzy ears, Fanny’s calm, inquisitive demeanour is infectious.

Fanny, a bay Shetland pony, is one of four equine participants in this Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) session at Heart Lake Farm in Central Saanich. She’s led through a small obstacle course by her two handlers, who provide ample affection after she calmly follows their directions over the poles.

A partnership between the Victoria Brain Injury Society, Heart Lake Farm and Humbles Hooves – a Cobble Hill-based horse wellness and therapy rescue farm – EAL is a non-riding life skills program rooted in the healing power of equine connection.

Participants – brain injury survivors and their family, friends and supporters – are invited to work in teams of two, with one horse or pony, to tackle different activities.

“I think horses have a very unique way of communicating,” says Tammera Merkins, Humble Hooves owner and operator. “Because they’re prey animals, they mirror what’s going on around them, and so they kind of ask humans to show up in a certain way – to be calm or have leadership.”

READ ALSO: Tiny therapeutic horse makes for touching story

Joan Davy grooms Misty the pony during a Humble Hooves Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) session at Heart Lake Farm March 8. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)

Merkins says participants have reported feeling a sense of calm from the horses and have grown more confident being around them. “We’re seeing these skills they’re learning here in the arena transfer over into their everyday lives.”

While grooming a horse named Gina, participant Joan Davy says that since her brain injury, light, sounds and sights can become overwhelming.

“Often with brain injury, words are … too much and so (I’m) learning to be with a being that is more about reading gestures and responses,” Davy says. “They are very sweet.”

She says isolation has been the norm for her – long before COVID-19.

“So I’m really grateful to have a new experience and probably the only social experience in months and months and months,” she says.

The session is the last in a series of workshops, but a 10-week program begins in April, available only to clients of the Victoria Brain Injury Society.

READ ALSO: Forward-thinking therapy at Saanich ranch

Brain injury survivors and their families partner up for an Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) session at Heart Lake Farm. Operated by Humble Hooves, the program encourages communication and connection for participants. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)


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