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'Healing through horses'

John Fulton (left) and Anastasia Hirst (right) are shown filming with Helen Stassen, and her horse Mara B. Fulton and Hirst are creating a documentary about Equine Assisted Therapy, which they're calling "Equus: Healing Through Horses." Photo courtesy of Helen Stassen.1 / 2
Jay Stassen (left) stands next to a Little Free Library he and wife Helen Stassen set up in honor of their late son Benjamin. Stassen is shown with Anastasia Hirst and John Fulton, who are filming a documentary about equine assisted therapy. The Stassen family participated in the documentary. Photo courtesy Helen Stassen. 2 / 2

Helen Crary Stassen was deeply affected by the loss of her son Benjamin to suicide in 2010. She tried all kinds of therapy. Finally, she and her husband decided to buy a horse, a Paint called Mara B.

Having Mara around has made a huge difference in Stassen's world.

But Mara hasn't just had an impact on Stassen and her family. Wanting to share Mara with the world, Stassen shares her story via a blog and Instagram.

It was through Instagram that Stassen met Anastasia Hirst and John Fulton. Those two are going to make Stassen's and Mara's story reach even further.

Hirst and Fulton are filming a documentary about Equine Assisted Therapy. Their project is titled "Equus: Healing Through Horses."

Equine Assisted Therapy

Equine Assisted Therapy is not widely known, Hirst said.

Hirst has a degree in child and youth care and has training in working at an equine facilitated wellness practitioner; she has worked with youth and adults with addictions and people who have suffered trauma for about 7 years.

Hirst said equine assisted therapy is not the same as therapeutic riding, which is "super well established."

Therapeutic riding's focus is generally more on physical healing and usually works more with people who have disabilities.

Equine assisted therapy is different. The goal is to have mental healing, she said. And it's not necessarily about riding, but just spending time with and building a relationship with a horse.

Most people work on the ground with Equine Assisted Therapy.

"It's about helping people to heal emotional wounds," Hirst said. "Horses are really, really good at reading emotions and they don't judge... It encourages people to be really congruent to act the way they feel. They can't hide behind a persona around a horse."

She said this therapy style helps people build connections and relationships in a non-judgmental environment.

The documentary

When Hirst and Fulton decided to start Equus, Fulton had been looking for his next project.

"Anastasia would come home from working with clients all day and she'd start telling me these stories about interacting with clients that are breathtaking," Fulton said. "All of a sudden it clicked."

They started to wonder if any films on equine assisted therapy existed that really showcase information, not just telling one person's story, but really taking a broader approach.

They realized there was gap in the existing films.

So they decided to fill that gap.

"I think we knew that it was needed," Hirst said. "It was just waiting for someone to put it together. Nobody else has this unique combination of skills and it's kind of when else are we going to do it?"

They started filming at home, in Canada. But they decided to pack up and travel around to film this documentary. Their project is completely crowdfunded. They retrofitted a van into a camper and drive around filming.

The pair love to travel, but they wanted to bring back more than just selfies taken at landmarks and tourist attractions.

"We need to be doing something creative and something important with our time," Hirst said. "That gives back and it's not just traveling and taking nice photos. We wanted to do something that really meant something to us."

Fulton has worked as a filmmaker and photographer for about 14 years. They said their combination of skills is really driving this project.

"If anyone like (Hirst) was just trying to do this project without someone who really knew the field, the cost associated with this... hiring a filmmaker would be hundreds of thousands of dollars," Fulton said.

So far Hirst and Fulton have interviewed people who have done a lot of research and taken a neuroscience approach or a somatic therapy approach.They've talked to experts in the field, people completing new research, and people who facilitate this type of therapy.

Each episode, they said, will focus on a different topic, like trauma and PTSD, for example.

The stories they've been looking for have been from people, individuals who have been willing to share them.

Hirst and Fulton said each episode of their documentary series will focus on a different topic and will have one person's story to really carry that episode forward.

One of those is Stassen.

Stassen and Mara's story

Stassen became acquainted with Hirst and Fulton via Instagram. They connected because they both use hashtags like "#equineassistedtherapy" and "#therapyhorse."

They reached out and asked Stassen if she'd let them interview and film her. She said yes.

"To me, it's just been amazing the power of social media, to tell you the truth, since they're from Canada," Stassen said. "I find it fascinating that we can find our positive groups that way, and that they literally came here to meet me and to hear our story."

Stassen, her husband Jay and her son spent 10 days with Hirst and Fulton.

Sharing her story was an emotional process, Stassen said.

Her equine assisted therapy story goes back to her childhood. She grew up with horses, and had one of her own growing up.

She had gotten away from horses when her family was young. She returned to horses at age 40, but only leased them.

Then, Stassen's son Benjamin died.

"You really reorder your life and your priorities," she said. "Jay and I just thought this is such an important piece of healing for me that I would like to buy my own horse. So I was 57 years old when I bought Mara."

That was three years ago. Mara, a 15-year-old Paint, is now a hugely important part of Stassen's life.

"It took a year to really make her mine," Stassen said.

They've dealt with some injuries, but Stassen and Mara have a special bond.

"I would definitely describe our relationship as zen," she said. "I see her every day and I do call her my therapy horse."

Stassen is no stranger to therapy of many types, traditional and holistic.

"I'm very willing to try things that may help," she said, "But for emotional healing, I feel like having (Mara) is very powerful."

Stassen and her husband live south of Prescott, but spend a lot of time in River Falls — especially because Mara is boarded in River Falls at River Brink Stables.

Stassen visits, grooms and rides Mara every day.

"The work of having a horse pulled my emotion and my mind out of the 24/7 negative that I was living in," she said. "I had years of being very depressed and very shut down. And I took a major retreat from life for five years.

"I would say moving into having her as a responsibility and creating and developing our relationship slowly moved me forward."

Stassen said the best part of her ride is the "stillness, silence, quiet observation."

"My horse is really calm," she said. "We stop. We look. We take photos. We try to capture where we are and absorb it."

Stassen is an individual member of PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International). She's not a professional therapist or facilitator.

"I do my own solo," she said. "I'm not saying I'm official in any way. I'm saying I'm living it. I'm practicing it every day."

"It's a really unique approach to get the benefits of equine therapy, but facilitating that change in yourself," Fulton said. "I think that's an interesting kind of analogy for what we all really have to do in any form of therapy. The change occurs from within. As important as the facilitator can be, it really just comes down to the horse."

To learn more

Hirst and Fulton share their documentary, and the physical journey they're taking to make it on their website, www.equusfilm.org. Also on that site are their fundraising efforts.

Mara had such a big impact on Stassen that she wanted to share the horse with others. So she started a blog she calls Mara Moments. She'll usually post about one picture each day with a description of the moment captured. Her blog can be found at maramomentshorsetime.com.

Mara Moments can also be reached via Facebook and Instagram.

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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