The magic of working with animals

by Laura Rodley

Having animals rely on you for their feed and care is the norm for farmers. But for a person struggling with addiction or mental illness, filling this need for an animal can help grow resilience, confidence and self-worth. You become essential.

“Where better to teach a concept like resiliency, or demonstrate resiliency, than on a farm in New England,” said Shawn Hayden, COO of GAAMHA, parent agency of the Carl E. Dahl House at Evergreen Grove, a 16-bed residential facility therapeutic farm community for men ages 18 to 65 in Gardner, MA.

The Co-Occurring Recovery Home is named after Carl E. Dahl, a dairy farmer and engineer who achieved sobriety through GAAMHA, worked for GAAMHA and remained sober and advocated for agriculture until he passed in 2004.

A team of staff are on site 24/7, overseeing assignments and residential care. The program is set up in a clinical framework in the context of a farm to approach issues both clinically and to deal with tangible life issues.

“Some people go to meetings, some take medications. To learn to love themselves, they learn to love the animal first,” Hayden said. Then that love can be directed to themselves. “You know you’ve been doing this for your four-footed friend; now you can look in the mirror and do this for yourself.”

They’d been having success with clients working with animals (sheep, goats, alpacas, pigs and geese) at a site in Athol since 2017.  When they moved to their new site and started their new program in November 2021, they added eight Newfoundland ponies.

Last summer, “one of our volunteers worked in the law office that we use for our agency, and heard that the Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center (NPCC) was looking for a new location for their ponies,” said Hayden.

He and other officials traveled to New Hampshire, met with NPCC Executive Director Emily Aho and her husband George Aho, NPCC president. Emily trained and became certified as an Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) facilitator in 2015. They were a perfect fit. She teaches the residents all about the breed.

“It’s been a pinch-me experience,” said Emily, as it’s worked so well.

“It’s what she’s wanted to do all along,” said George.

The 115-acre farm abuts 100 acres of forest. The ponies are pastured on what was once a sulky racetrack. “We are not just animal care. It is a robust program with nature hikes, yoga, nutritional education and art therapy. The magic happens with the animals,” said Hayden. “Horses don’t know anything about stigma. They look you in the eye and give you instant and genuine feedback. I’m a person in long-term recovery from substance abuse myself. I felt like everywhere I went my addiction walked into the room first.  The ponies don’t care; they meet you in real-time. They don’t see the baggage. They have natural boundaries and help residents redevelop their own boundaries. The ponies are very flexible, but respond ‘don’t act that way around me’ if it’s something they don’t like. The resident can build a healthy relationship with the pony.”

The magic of working with animals

Shawn Hayden and Emily Aho with Smokey, a Newfoundland pony, and Erik, part Newfoundland pony, at the Carl E. Dahl House at Evergreen Grove. Photo by Laura Rodley

Taking residents out of the classroom and working with the animals is “making changes in people that no one else thought were capable of change,” he said.

In orientation, residents learn the anatomy and physiology of the animals. “Emily talks about how horses use nonverbal skills and how to approach them. We are in the background – the human clinician, the psychiatrist – while they do animal care activities,” said Hayden.

The resident program is paid through state insurance. “It’s for people who have nothing. Most equine therapy programs require higher income insurance plans,” said Hayden.

He noted that programs in Northern Europe have been finding success with similar animal interactive care programs. “There has been a lot more money put into recovery programs in the last 20 years but the outcomes really haven’t improved as much as we would expect. We hope to have moved that needle a little bit,” he said.

“All of our animals have been rescued, except for the Newfoundland ponies,” noted Hayden.

Smokey is a 13.2-hand gray roan whose coat constantly changes color. He is best pals with Erik, who is part Newfoundland pony. “Erik’s my secret weapon. He excels at immediately teaching how to be a team member,” said Emily. Erik desires being led with a loose lead. If someone pulls on him hard, he’ll dig his feet in and stand his ground four-square. The program teaches animal ethics and is conscious about how animals are treated.

The Newfoundland ponies have their own troubled history that Emily and other NPCC members are striving to reverse. The Equus Survival Trust lists them as a critically endangered species, with 500 in the whole world, and 50 in the U.S. Part of the plan is to have foals born at the farm to help increase the residents’ animal experience and expand the breed.

The response to the Carl E. Dahl House Evergreen Program has been so positive that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health is funding a new youth day program at Evergreen Grove for those ages 12 to 24, called R.O.O.T.S. (Resilient-Optimistic-Open-Minded-Thriving-Serene). As of May 8, 75 people had already signed up, including families, clergy, coaches, guidance counselors and mental health workers. All R.O.O.T.S. participants will be able to attend the program free of charge.

Visitors view the ponies, two sheep, three alpacas, three donkeys, two Jersey Buff turkeys, an assortment of mini-pigs, geese and 20 goats. Walking into the goat pen, they are greeted by Travis, a one-horned goat who glides right up and puts his head up to be petted. “A resident might be having a really bad day, and come in here and be with the goats, and his stress just melts away,” said Hayden.

For more information, access dahlhouse.org or newfoundlandponies.org.

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