By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Vanessa Strike has long known horses are therapeutic and with the herd of six critically endangered Newfoundland ponies at Poppy’s Haven near Varna, she offers Equine Assisted Learning and Wellness (EAL, EAW).
“My horse training began as traditional but as I grew, I moved into natural horsemanship and positive reinforcement,” says Strike, who has her PhD in business and research, and has taught family business at Erasmus in the Netherlands, the University of British Columbia and Ivey Business School. “I could see how horses, as non-judgemental, sentient beings, had much to teach us…especially about human social dynamics. Horses are social, they live in a herd, they are present and they look for leadership.”
Business, research and teaching is what Strike’s life was all about before she had horses. She grew up a child obsessed with horses but most of her adult life was focused on her career. Then, 10 years ago, she sadly lost a baby while she was in second trimester. Strike and her husband, Stephen, a professor, had nicknamed the baby “Poppy.” Around the same time, Strike researched “Newfoundland ponies” and added “Poppy” to the search and a pony with that name came up!
“I contacted the breeder but we had so much on the go, I decided not to purchase the pony,” remembers Strike. However, the breeder did not forget that call. When she decided to retire, she called Strike and asked her to consider buying Poppy again. This time, Strike agreed and so began a chain of events. First, she bred Poppy because when you have horses from an endangered breed, the goal is for every mare to produce two to three foals. Poppy ended up with one foal, and Strike purchased another mare that is now pregnant with her third foal. Before she knew it, there were six Newfoundland ponies in total, all mares.
During this time, Strike earned her Equine Assisted Learning certificate and took courses in Equine Facilitated Wellness with a goal to merge her love of horses with her skill at teaching, and live the motto that directs her life: “If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, or cool one pain, or help one fainting robin unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain.” which was written by Emily Dickinson.
As her herd grew, the search began for a farm where Strike and family could house the horses and offer EAL and EAW with these gentle, friendly ponies. What was once called the old Mustard farm outside of Varna caught their eye with its huge bank barn, noted to be one of the oldest in Huron County. It was not horse ready but $200,000 later, the barn was repaired and remodeled with horse stalls, a loafing area inside and out, pastures and a track feeding system to help keep these ponies fit and trim. It’s now a gorgeous, spacious barn and while Strike says it’s “still not finished” it is ready enough to launch her new career.
“Many of the issues we see in family farm are not about the business, but more about family dynamics and ownership,” says Strike, speaking from her expertise in family business. “We learn about these dynamics with the horses in a non-judgemental environment and then apply them back to our own lives.”
As she continues to learn about horses and people, she says “horsenalities” are similar to humans. “They can be introverts, extroverts, left-brained or right-brained,” says Strike. “The behaviours we see have parallels to human interactions.” As Strike has clients work with the horses by brushing them, walking them and asking them to listen to their commands, there is a connection between horse and human. Strike facilitates by asking questions and encouraging clients to apply the horse/human concepts back to their own lives. “This is where the power lies. This is where the light-bulb moment happens. We first understand it in the horses and their dynamics and then we are gently guided to understand it so much more in our own lives,” says Strike.
Working with the horses also teaches clients how to set boundaries, while building confidence and the ability to self-regulate. Horses are herd animals and look for leadership from their humans. If the human doesn’t provide it, the horse will take leadership.
“Most of us did not grow up learning how to regulate our emotions. It was not part of the vocabulary. Horses teach us to co-regulate,” writes Strike on her Facebook page. “As prey animals, horses react to what our body is doing. We, as their leaders, need to be self-aware and regulate our emotions in order for them to feel safe. This allows us to experience what it means to co-regulate with others, and increase our ability to regulate ourselves, all in a non-judgemental environment. Remember, the leader is the calmest one in the room.”
Strike is working with a few teenage girls right now who have a variety of challenges including self-harm issues, social anxiety issues and selective mutism. Questions about what they feel and notice are asked and the horses/human connection does the rest. Strike stresses that she is not a therapist and doesn’t do therapy as this is out of her scope of practice. Instead, she will work with social workers and psychologists when asked.
Strike also works with groups and offers obstacle course activities with the horses. In groups of four, one person can’t hear, another can’t speak, another can’t see and one can’t touch. They are required to combine their skills to learn teamwork, trust and leadership. Yoga and wellness retreats are also offered at the farm.
For now, the work being done at Poppy’s Haven is part-time (though taking care of the horses is more full-time work). Strike maintains a research affiliation with University of Western Ontario in London. She is also a mother to one grown son and two young daughters.
Personally, Strike finds the work “incredibly rewarding”. There are times when the work of taking care of six ponies and the responsibility of breeding them makes her wonder if she’d be better to just have a few and ride them when she wants. But then she gets a call from a family she is working with who are so appreciative of the therapeutic value of working with the horses that it erases her doubts and energizes her once again.
Plus, volunteers help when needed to care for the horses and the ponies themselves are so affectionate. “They don’t seem to have the sauciness of other ponies. These Newfoundland ponies are gentle, curious and easy to train,” says Strike. (See sidebar for more information on Newfoundland ponies).
She does Liberty work with the herd, which is a natural horsemanship method of training where work is done with the horse while it is loose, without rope or reins. Strike demonstrates it with one of the ponies, asking her to stand on a barrel, a prerequisite to teaching the ponies to step up into a trailer. At her signal, the pony stood proudly on the barrel, quite content to stay while the other ponies watched.
For more photos and information, Poppy’s Haven can be found on Facebook and online at poppyshaven.com ◊