The healing power of equine therapy.
A pink-haired teenager painted two pictures on the side of her massive, living canvas. First, the girl drew a picture of a broken heart and a horse. Then, she used the paint to sketch a person and a full heart.
Tears welled in her eyes when it came time to share with her peers the artwork she had created on a horse on the final day of a weeks-long therapy program. The girl said she was dealing with difficult issues at home and had arrived at the first session with a broken heart. But building a relationship with the animal had made her feel whole again.
In that moment, horse therapist Carrie Watson knew she had made the right decision. Quitting her teaching job in 2012 and moving to the country to follow her dreams of opening a specialized wellness business wasn’t an easy decision.
Leaving a secure profession she’d enjoyed for a decade to introduce Albertans to the little-known field of equine-assisted therapy was a risk, but one Watson strongly believed in. And when she heard from students, including the pink-haired girl who opened up during that final exercise, Watson knew she was doing important work. She and her horses were changing lives.
For as long as Watson can remember, the native Calgarian has been drawn to horses. As a young girl, she belonged to a pony club and volunteered at the Fish Creek trail riding stable.
When she faced personal challenges as an adult, Watson found solace in the gentle giants she boarded on land 40 minutes from her city home. The times she felt physically sick, achy and miserable, she found her symptoms disappeared when she was with her horses. She credits time spent with the animals for her character and confidence.
Horses were Watson’s stress relief and she wanted others to experience their healing powers
She knew she wasn’t alone.
She had long taken pleasure from watching her cousin Jenny, who has multiple disabilities, benefit from contact with horses, and felt a growing to desire to give other people with special needs the same opportunity.
After quitting her teaching job, Watson embarked on a year-long training and certification process with Equine Facilitated Wellness Canada. Armed with dual certification (both as an equine professional and an equine facilitated learning professional) Watson opened Whispering Equine in 2013 on land near De Winton, just south of Calgary.
Watson and her team of 12 animals work with a range of clients with such varied afflictions as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, ADHD and developmental disabilities, and those who’ve suffered sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
She teaches private sessions for both adults and teens, in addition to running group programs for junior and senior high school students. Her teenage clients tend to be referred by therapists, school boards, health professionals or parents.
Watson considers her horses her co-workers and practices Reiki — a healing technique that uses touch to activate natural healing processes and restore physical and emotional well-being — so her animals don’t burn out.
“When our horses work with people that are struggling inside, whether it’s a physical disability or a mental illness, the horses, to stay calm and present with them, can take on their negative energies,” she said. The healing technique helps the horses release that negative energy.
Her facility includes sprawling outdoor fields and a brand-new large barn, made possible with support from Watson’s aunt and uncle, who own the land and believe in her mission. The couple’s 35-year-old daughter (Watson’s cousin), Jenny Seth, suffers from hypo cephalic cyst condition, similar to cerebral palsy, and communicates through sign language.