Joel Fast enjoys some time with a horse at Brave Hearts in Apple Hill.
CORNWALL, Ontario - There's a little slice of heaven, just outside Apple Hill, that is making life bearable, and even enjoyable, for local children who are having trouble being kids.
Brave Hearts, a therapeutic horse program, has been helping children with anxiety, learning challenges, sensory impediments and even those who are bullied, work through their issues with some help from a collection of four-legged friends.
"I've seen so many positive changes in children," said Christine Miller, who along with a dedicated team of volunteers, runs Brave Hearts.
Miller is the program co-ordinator, as well as an educational assistant who is certified to teach therapeutic riding, by the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association.
Her programming is simple, and based on the number of children that have gone through the barn after 15 years in service, the results speak for themselves.
"We help kids feel better from the inside out. For some it’s finding their voice, others learn how to make a friend but all learn what success feels like because we set them up for success," she said.
Children spend much of their time at Brave Hearts caring for, and learning about horses. The reason why horses are such a fixture is that children learn empowerment, and begin to believe more in themselves, by caring for an animal that often towers over its surroundings and can weigh in excess of 1,000 pounds.
They even learn about loss.
Brave Hearts lost one of its team members recently when Odee, an elderly horse with a gentle spirit, passed away.
Cheryl Fast, whose son Joel spent time at Brave Hearts, said the horse was important to her son, who faces complications from a brain tumour.
“Odee will always have a special place in my heart," she said. "I strongly believe that gentle giant played a huge role in Joel's healing. After Joel went mute his speech came back slowly and Joel then began to display selective mutism, he spoke to very few people. He started talking to Odee, and then all the wonderful people at Brave Hearts, and from there his confidence grew."
Other children who experience bullying, and often lose their feeling of self-worth, can find a renewed sense of self through caring for animals and even teaching them new tasks.
A collection of young teens with autism even created a training program for miniature horses. The result was an animal they could take to an area nursing home to meet with residents.
"We're trying to help children reach specific goals," said Miller.
But it doesn't come cheap. Caring for the animals, about a dozen horses, takes its toll.
And while parents and local agencies pay to have their children take part in programming, upkeep costs can be significant.
"We are a registered charity," said Miller, "We rely on donations and fundraising to continue."
More information about the programming at Brave Hearts can be found here.