Edmonton Journal, March 20, 2017

By Clare Clancy,

Bill Neis stands at the edge of the corral, watching horses trot around a snow-covered field in Edmonton’s river valley. The scene is a stark contrast to his former life, when he was homeless in the inner city, addicted to crack and alcohol.

“I wasn’t going to survive another winter,” Neis said. “I give a lot of credit to my therapists and the horses.”

Neis, 60, attributes his lasting recovery to equine therapy, finding comfort in the non-judgmental and soothing presence of horses.

“Just being that close to a large animal makes you feel relaxed.”

He has been part of the Making Strides equine therapy program since it launched in 2012. Five years later, he’s living in an apartment and remains sober.

“I was four years clean coming out here, but I still had problems,” he explained, noting that he needed to examine underlying causes of his addictions.

Neis said his father died when he was 12 years old, prompting him to take his first drink. “I don’t remember how it tasted, but I know how it felt …. It made me feel different for 40 years.”

Local agencies, Boyle Street Community Services and the Bissell Centre refer vulnerable Edmontonians to the Making Strides program.

Rylan Kafara, an inner-city recreation co-ordinator with Boyle Street, said the program operates on in-kind donations for therapeutic services and access to horses. Making Strides has no budget dollars, running entirely on donated services.

“We always have a waiting list,” he said. More than 60 people have participated to date.

With a new riding arena under construction at the Whitemud Equine Learning Centre, located at 12504 Fox Dr., Making Strides has an opportunity to expand.

But that will all depend on covering operational costs, Kafara said. “The need is there.”

Psychologist Amanda Slugoski, owner of Equinox Therapeutic, the agency that provides psychological services for the program, said horses have particular attributes useful in therapy.

They mirror people, she said, explaining how horses react to client behaviour — if someone is skittish and anxious, the horse will react similarly and may be standoffish.

“They’re good at giving the subtlest of cues …. In a nutshell, it’s an experiential way to do therapy.”

Equine therapy helps people learn non-verbal cues to hone their communication skills and build healthier relationships, she said. Horses also provide a non-judgmental zone.

“That horse doesn’t care if you just used or relapsed,” Slugoski said.

She stressed equine therapy isn’t superior to other types of treatment: “If you think the horse is magical, or powerful … that’s what it will be for you.”

For Neis, equine therapy has been a necessary alternative. He can’t focus in an office setting.

“I associate a lot with smells,” he said. “It’s a nice smell for me. The hay, the alfalfa, the horses.”

His bi-monthly visits to the Whitemud Equine Centre put him at ease. He’s no longer leery about accepting help from others, he said, and has found solace in nature. But it’s been a challenging road.

“When you’re living on the street, you’re living through some type of trauma,” he said. “I was never comfortable enough to talk about stuff, but the horses made me comfortable.”

Updated: March 21, 2017 9:23 AM MDT

Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the Making Strides has no budget dollars, running entirely on donated services.