NORTH BAY -- With boots required and gloves strongly recommended, it’s not what most people think of when looking for mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder support. However at Ad Astra Stables near North Bay, it’s the horses that help do the healing.

The three-stall facility in Corbeil opened its doors to the public more than two years ago. It offers a variety of programs, including female empowerment sessions, corporate team building and even date adventures.

However, the big focus is on Equine Assisted Learning – Regain the Reins, a program to help first responders who suffer with mental health and PTSD.

“I’ve got 37 years military experience, I’ve retired, Larissa’s got about 14,” said owner Robert Brown. “It’s a way to give back to the community, to the Armed Forces, to police, everything that we have enjoyed throughout our careers. I know how these people feel and if I can help a little bit, then that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Program is free for first responders

Larissa and Robert Brown are both RCAF veterans who have been impacted by mental-health struggles, including PTSD. For them, it was a no-brainer to offer the program free of charge to first responders in the area.

“We want to give back to our community, absolutely,” said Larissa. “We feel like the military is our family."

Since opening, they have helped between 20 and 30 people and have plans to expand and add even more programs in the future. But for now, the stable is off to a good start.

“We have not had one person who has not benefited greatly from it,” said Robert. “Of course everybody’s reaction to a horse, everybody’s reaction to PTSD is going to be different. This isn’t for everybody, but I would venture to say that it’s great for most.”

This proved to be true for first responder Andy Bishop, who said it helped him even after he left the stable.

“It helped put me in a more calm state, less anxious while I was with the horses for the hour,” said Bishop. “(I) really enjoyed the time and then when you’re not with the horses, you think about them and you think about how they’re calm and how they respond to your direction and the time you get to spend with them.”

“A person doesn’t need to suffer in silence," he continued. "There are many different ways or options in society to help people with PTSD or stress and this is another one, another tool to use. It was a great opportunity and really thankful to have Ad Astra Stables to help my wife and I, who were able to do … the therapy together.”

Perfect for the program

Robert said all three horses on the farm have almost a “petting zoo temperament,” making them perfect for the program.

“We start by having the individual bond with the horse, groom the horse, learn the safety, which is paramount, of course, for the people and the horse," he said. "Every place is gated around here and you have to wear your boots and gloves are highly recommended. So with the building block approach, we will start very, very slowly and eventually move to the point where a person is going to be able to tack up the horse, put the halter on, lead him out here to the arena and then go through the little series or simple exercises.”

Larissa adds that although some people can be nervous at the beginning, it usually doesn’t take long for them to “blossom.”

“It’s absolutely incredible to see confidence growing by the minute when people are working with the horses," she said. "We’ve seen it from adult men to young girls, and their confidence grows. We’ve had people tell us that they’ve learned more in one-hour session with us doing a boundary lesson then they have in any other program that they’ve done.”

“It was a great opportunity to learn about the horse and to learn how vulnerable they are and how much alike we are,” said Bishop. “(It’s) difficult to get them to trust us if we’re not showing a very calm emotion, if we’re suffering from anxiety or stress, the horse can perceive that.”

More information on the programs that Ad Astra Stables offers can be found on its website.