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The Forge Program may be launching in 2018, but the fire was lit back in 2014.

In 2014, Paul and Terry Nichols of Quesnel, B.C., founded the Communities for Veterans Foundation and began planning for The Ride Across Canada to bridge the gap between civilian and military cultures and create awareness about contemporary veterans in Canada.

One of the inspirations for The Ride Across Canada came from a chance encounter in Vancouver. Paul, a former Calgary Highlander who served with 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry during the UN mission in the former Yugoslavia in 1993, was shopping when a woman recognized the Regimental crest on his jacket. She asked if he was in the Canadian Army, and she began to share her story with him. She cried and hugged Paul as she told him about living through the Siege of Sarajevo. For two years, they were near starvation and dodged daily sniper fire, and it was Canadian troops who saved their lives and eventually got her out. Everyone in line behind Paul in the store had tears in their eyes as they heard this woman share her story and express her gratitude. On this day, Paul realized the power of a heartfelt story. Years later, he would get a chance to share that power with thousands of people through a cross-country horseback ride.  

When Paul and Terry’s first daughter was born, Paul left the military, and he and Terry returned to Quesnel, a small town in central B.C. When Paul left the Calgary Highlanders, he left the brotherhood and his support network. Not only that, but he also ended up in a town that had no military presence, where he wasn’t recognized as a veteran.

“As a veteran who has been under fire and struggled to make the transition to civilian life, I know how lonely it can be making a home in a community that doesn’t recognize a contemporary veteran,” says Paul. “I stopped telling my stories and then began to spend a lot of time inside my own head wondering if my service had been worthwhile. My own journey included my dog, my horse and a lot of time alone on the river with a fly rod. Ultimately, it was the Bosnian woman in the shop that took the time to share her story that changed my life, and I am a different person today because of her.”

Several years ago, Paul returned to the military as a Canadian Ranger and, under the supervision of BC Coy 4 CRPG, took on the creation of a basic horsemanship exercise. Dozens of Canadian Rangers and Regular Army have been through this training at Paul and Terry’s farm and have developed into proficient, confident riders. Paul recalls that one evening around the fire, they were discussing the day’s ride and one of the Patricia’s asked what their Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment program looked like. They didn’t have a program, but that question stayed with them.

“This is when we realized that we were uniquely suited to make a difference, and it was the beginning of an idea,” says Paul.

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In 2015, after a year of planning, Paul and Terry assembled horses and a crew, and The Ride Across Canada began its 211-day, 11,000-kilometre journey April 13, 2015, stepping off from the steps of the B.C. Legislature in Victoria. Paul and his horse Zoe rode 7,000 of the 11,000 kilometres together, finishing the Ride Nov. 9, 2015, in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Along the way, 363 veterans and serving Canadian Armed Forces members joined Paul on the road. Terry took each rider through a horsemanship lesson to make sure they could join Paul on his Ride while keeping themselves and the horses safe. Once they went through this horsemanship lesson, the veterans would meet Paul along his trail, riding in or close to their community and often being part of a parade that ended at a community event where they were met with applause, hugs and thank yous. It was an amazing way to re-introduce people to the veterans in their community, and it gave the community a chance to show gratitude and appreciation to the veterans and get to know them. These days, our troops deploy differently than they generations ago. A military unit used to draw its members from its hometown or region. The boys went off to war together; brothers and cousins and neighbours shared common experiences and then returned home together.  Now, troops deploy from large central bases, and they come home and scatter across the country. So for many veterans who joined us, this horseback ride into their community was their homecoming and their parade.

The Ride Across Canada was about so much more than one veteran and his family riding across the country for a cause. The Ride created awareness and encouraged discussion of the challenges our service men and women face as they transition back into the world of civilians. Paul and Terry knew the Canadian people love their troops and our communities will support them, but they often don’t know who these troops are after they clear out of the military. The Ride Across Canada was able to change that in many communities.

“By educating our communities and raising awareness to the changing face of their veterans, we can give them the opportunity to truly support their troops,” says Paul. “We believe that this timely help from the communities that they have served will lower the incidence of PTSD and family break up, and I personally know that timely help can change a life. I know that a timely thank you for your service can be way more effective than all of therapy in the world after one of our boys has lost his way.”

The Ride gave thousands of people across the country a chance to say thank you, created awareness and created a lot of important and valuable discussion.

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The impact of working with horses

The Ride also showed us what an impact spending time with horses had on the men and women who joined us. Terry’s style of horsemanship, Equine Assisted Mindfulness, keeps riders in the present moment and creates a lot of awareness. Equine Assisted Mindfulness is interaction with horses to create a state of active, open attention on the present.

The Ride also showed us what an impact spending time with horses had on the men and women who joined us. Terry’s style of horsemanship, Equine Assisted Mindfulness, keeps riders in the present moment and creates a lot of awareness. Equine Assisted Mindfulness is interaction with horses to create a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings, without judging them good or bad. You live in the moment and are aware of your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. As well, working with horses allows our veteran riders to experience their symptoms of PTSD or Operational Stress Injuries and bring awareness to the effects that has – on themselves and on the horse.

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Veteran session with horses

When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings, without judging them good or bad. You live in the moment and are aware of your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. As well, working with horses allows our veteran riders to experience their symptoms of PTSD or Operational Stress Injuries and bring awareness to the effects that has – on themselves and on the horse.
 

The veterans who did lessons with Terry learned that if they were tense, too fast in their movements or their emotions got in the way, it would affect their horse. Terry gave them tools to ease tension and come back to the present moment, and as the lessons went on, the riders often found parallels between what was happening with the horse and what would happen with family members or co-workers when they became tense and controlling in other situations. It was very powerful for everyone involved, and many riders told us their experiences with the horses changed their lives.

Once the Ride Across Canada was over, and we returned home in December 2015, we knew we couldn’t just stop what we had started. We had seen time and time again the positive impact this work with horses had on the veterans who joined us – and the positive changes in them that it inspired – and many of the men and women who had ridden with us stayed in touch and told us how much their time with us had meant to them and how they wanted more of this type of experience.

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Equine Assisted Mindfulness

We began developing a pilot Equine Assisted Mindfulness program for veterans, and in May 2016, we hosted a 13-day pilot program at Paul and Terry’s farm, Pen-Y-Bryn. Seven veterans paid their own way to come to Quesnel to be part of this program, including three who had participated in the Ride Across Canada, and we had a researcher here for part of the program. The veterans stayed on the farm for the duration of the program and were paired with a horse for whom they had to care.

We began developing a pilot Equine Assisted Mindfulness program for veterans, and in May 2016, we hosted a 13-day pilot program at Paul and Terry’s farm, Pen-Y-Bryn. Seven veterans paid their own way to come to Quesnel to be part of this program, including three who had participated in the Ride Across Canada, and we had a researcher here for part of the program. The veterans stayed on the farm for the duration of the program and were paired with a horse for whom they had to care. Their days were full of healthy food, outdoor activity, farm chores, horse work, Equine Assisted Mindfulness training, riding, groundwork, group discussion and work on projects around the property, as well as massage therapy, yoga and body work. As the days went on, you could see bonds forming as the men became more comfortable with each other, and they developed the camaraderie that they lost when they left the military. We saw incredible changes in the men, and once again felt like we were doing the right thing and that we had to keep this going.

The experiences from The Ride Across Canada and the Equine Assisted Mindfulness pilot program have led us to where we stand today, preparing for our Forge Programs. We are excited and encouraged that our program has been chosen by Veterans Affairs Canada to be one of five equine therapy models across Canada to be researched, and a researcher from the University of Quebec will be on the farm for one of our Forge Programs for Veterans.

 

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The Ride also showed us what an impact spending time with horses had on the men and women who joined us. Terry’s style of horsemanship, Equine Assisted Mindfulness, keeps riders in the present moment and creates a lot of awareness. Equine Assisted Mindfulness is interaction with horses to create a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you carefully observe your thoughts and feelings, without judging them good or bad. You live in the moment and are aware of your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. As well, working with horses allows our veteran riders to experience their symptoms of PTSD or Operational Stress Injuries and bring awareness to the effects that has – on themselves and on the horse.

The veterans who did lessons with Terry learned that if they were tense, too fast in their movements or their emotions got in the way, it would affect their horse. Terry gave them tools to ease tension and come back to the present moment, and as the lessons went on, the riders often found parallels between what was happening with the horse and what would happen with family members or co-workers when they became tense and controlling in other situations. It was very powerful for everyone involved, and many riders told us their experiences with the horses changed their lives.

Once the Ride Across Canada was over, and we returned home in December 2015, we knew we couldn’t just stop what we had started. We had seen time and time again the positive impact this work with horses had on the veterans who joined us – and the positive changes in them that it inspired – and many of the men and women who had ridden with us stayed in touch and told us how much their time with us had meant to them and how they wanted more of this type of experience.

We began developing a pilot Equine Assisted Mindfulness program for veterans, and in May 2016, we hosted a 13-day pilot program at Paul and Terry’s farm, Pen-Y-Bryn. Seven veterans paid their own way to come to Quesnel to be part of this program, including three who had participated in the Ride Across Canada, and we had a researcher here for part of the program. The veterans stayed on the farm for the duration of the program and were paired with a horse for whom they had to care. Their days were full of healthy food, outdoor activity, farm chores, horse work, Equine Assisted Mindfulness training, riding, groundwork, group discussion and work on projects around the property, as well as massage therapy, yoga and body work. As the days went on, you could see bonds forming as the men became more comfortable with each other, and they developed the camaraderie that they lost when they left the military. We saw incredible changes in the men, and once again felt like we were doing the right thing and that we had to keep this going.

The experiences from The Ride Across Canada and the Equine Assisted Mindfulness pilot program have led us to where we stand today, preparing for our Forge Programs. We are excited and encouraged that our program has been chosen by Veterans Affairs Canada to be one of five equine therapy models across Canada to be researched, and a researcher from the University of Quebec will be on the farm for one of our Forge Programs for Veterans.