The horse farm at 31 Wells Road has sprung back to life as a non-profit organization whose mission is to help traumatized individuals, such as veterans, front-line workers and the grief-stricken, to deal with their trauma. Its title, Emerald Springs Equine Services, tells you that horses are an integral part of this process, but not in the way you might be thinking.
The trauma-informed care provided by the licensed therapists at Emerald Springs is not about getting clients up on the horses as physical therapy; instead, it helps them to find a way to conquer their stress, to develop “self-regulation” in the words of its founder and president Dr. Victoria Fleming, by developing a deeper relationship with these sentient beings.
Fleming is New England born, but lived in the mid-west for 37 years. She graduated from Indiana University in 1995 with a PhD in Educational Psychology and masters in counseling. After practicing outside the Chicago area for 17 years, Fleming made the move to Connecticut during the pandemic to be near her son and his wife who were about to have their first child.
While getting to know the area, a local clinician introduced her to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, and after some research and visits to practicing farms, she was hooked. She and her son Steve Fydenkevez, who is now vice president of the Granby organization, decided it could be something that they could take on together.
Fleming’s practice, North Shore Counseling, opened its doors to provide trauma-informed care for all and the non-profit organization Emerald Springs Equine services was founded so that all who need services could receive them, regardless of their ability to pay.
Some clients find their way to the farm from the Veterans Administration in Connecticut and Senator Richard Blumenthal’s office, but most hear about it by word-of-mouth. Fleming was eager but unable to start group programs during the pandemic but, with restrictions lifting, groups are set to begin in the fall.
After signing up for an appointment through the on-line portal or by phone, the next step is a private interview with Fleming in a comfortably furnished room adjacent to the large indoor arena. During this initial conversation, Fleming works with the client to set personalized goals and decide if an individual or group experience would best meet their needs. Although there is no predetermined number of meetings for individual sessions, Fleming encourages a minimum of three; she notes that a dozen is typical. Groups run in six-week cycles.
The next step is for the client to choose the horse that will be his or her partner in therapy. Clients meet the horses as they graze peacefully in their various fields or paddocks. Some clients are so anxious that they worry they may choose “the wrong” horse; Fleming reassures them that there is no wrong horse, to just follow their instinct.
Fleming notes that because trauma often causes chaos and drama in the clients’ personal lives, building a safe relationship with the therapy horse enables them to develop important self-awareness and regulation skills. Assisted by Fleming, the clients identify traumatic events that trigger unhealthy reactions. Using skills they practice with the horse, they are better able to cope and self-regulate in times of stress.
For those interested in more intensive work, Fleming is in the process of installing large trailers on the property to accommodate overnight or weekend retreats.
Emerald Springs Psychotherapy is not just for military veterans and first responders; it is for anyone who is suffering from traumatic experiences. Fleming’s clients include those who have strained marital or familial relationships, have experienced great loss and its associated grieving, are having difficulty coping with life stage changes or may be survivors of substance abuse.
Many of the horses in the program have been rescued themselves, in one way or another. Barn manager Rachel Fleury has procured several feral mustangs made available through the Bureau of Land Management, while others were in less-than-ideal circumstances and in need of a good home. Armed with a college degree in the equine profession and plenty of experience, she gentles them into the friendly creatures so integral to the Emerald Springs program. Some clients may choose to linger on a bench in what Fleming calls the Mary Garden. A statue of Mary is surrounded by rose bushes in a quiet place on the property. This gives a client the time to process what they have experienced before they head back out into the world at large.
This all sounds like, and is, a serious sobering process, but Fleming is not all work and no play. She is a vibrant outgoing personality whose love of her profession is evident, and perhaps to keep herself balanced and have a bit of fun, she is a member of the Tori Manion Band. The group plays classic rock covers; she sings! She says singing is the perfect metaphor. “Everyone has a story. Everyone has trauma to various degrees. Our ability to survive and find our voice after hard times, that’s a triumph everyone can experience. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy can be a vital first step for people in that process.”