For longtime Naples residents Paul and Jeannette McCreight, there were few answers on what comes next in the healing process. Paul, a disabled Navy veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), had just participated in an intensive clinical program through Home Base, supported by the Red Sox Foundation, which provides services at no cost to those battling with the invisible wounds of war. The Boston-based program led them to a place closer to home: the Naples Therapeutic Riding Center (NTRC).
NTRC is an organization offering equine-facilitated psychotherapy as a means of improving mental and behavioral health. Its horses provide thousands of hours of service each year. The center has seen significant growth through the trying years of the pandemic, and in fact, there is currently a waiting list to join.
The McCreights participated in NTRC’s Operation Strides, a hands-on, ground-based (no-riding) program offering equine-assisted learning opportunities to veterans and their families.
“It’s amazing to be around such a great animal,” says Paul. “It’s very calming, soothing. Horses can sense a human heart within 6 feet. The horse really knows what’s going on with the person who’s handling them.”
The center’s lead instructor Lea Haven, equine specialist in mental health and learning, has been working with horses for 20 years. A modern-day Dr. Dolittle in her own right, she understands the horses and the benefits they afford to the center’s participants.
“The horses give them the freedom to be themselves,” Haven says. “I tell our participants that all the time—the horses do not judge you; we do not judge you.”
Haven witnesses daily the newly formed bonds between these magnificent animals and the people they are helping, including those who have lost a loved one suddenly. “We paint the horses,” she explains of the four- to six-week bereavement therapy program. “People really release their emotions in a painting; they tell their story.”
For many participants, it’s an hour where they don’t have to think about anything but themselves in that present moment with the horse. It’s an hour of relaxation and learning and a break from everyday struggles.
“Our participants take [the horses] for a walk around the arena, and we encourage them to tell the horse what they did that day or if they’ve lost a person suddenly,” expounds Haven. “I’ve seen them standing there talking to the horse … and the horse just lowers its head. They feel that; they feel that emotion from the person.”
A therapy horse is a special one, and it requires strength from the participant to engage and lower their guard. No previous experience with horses is necessary, and there’s no age restrictions—the center sees ages 4 to 84.
During the pandemic, the center has provided complimentary services to frontline professionals and providers, including doctors, nurses, and teachers.
“I think that’s something I’m really proud of right now on top of all the other amazing programs we offer; we have really been able to think of the need during this crisis and come up with new programs,” says Executive Director Missy Lamont. “If we don’t take care of the people who take care of us and our children, how are we going to survive as a society?”
Lamont has served as executive director since 2018 and has been involved since 2008, first starting as a volunteer. “I loved horses, and I was looking for a way to give back,” she says. “We have over 450 volunteers, and they are so important to our organization. We have a large waiting list for therapeutic riders, so we’ll be expanding.”
Lamont explains that equine therapy can work in myriad ways, but empowerment is key: “It’s about how empowered you feel when you get this 1,200-pound animal to respect you, to follow you, to walk with you,” says Lamont.
In 2020, the center added two miniature horses to their herd as a means of easier travel to provide services to nursing homes and rehabilitation centers where people were not able to leave. “We wanted to make our services accessible by coming to them,” says Lamont. “These horses bring smiles to people’s faces. They have such patience and compassion.”
For Paul, he hopes to volunteer someday. “It’s absolutely amazing that someone came up with the concept of doing this as a way to help people mentally and emotionally and somewhat physically,” he says.
“It’s like an escape from reality,” adds Jeannette, Paul’s wife. “You can focus on what’s in front of you, and nothing else matters. However Paul is feeling physically that day, it still works. The environment brings a lot of joy and fulfillment. It’s an incredible experience.”
“I’ve always made my own future and then life changed because of previous injuries, and this transition was a very easy thing to do,” says Paul, though nervous at the start. “I’m so glad that I went, and that they held my spot for me.”
Incredible Act: Improv with Horses
Naples Therapeutic Riding Center offers an innovative program involving theatrical improv, steered by Director of Community Education & Wellness Craig Price of The Naples Players. Though the two organizations have enjoyed a partnership for some time, Price says it became personal when his own kids starting riding at the center.
“My wife and I say the Naples Therapeutic Riding Center saved our lives and still does every day,” he says.
To work alongside Price, the center first approached Bryce Alexander, executive artistic director for The Naples Players, referencing a therapeutic improv-with horses program, taking place at the time in England. The center wanted to replicate it in the U.S., where there was nothing like it. Teaming up, the two organizations offered a program geared toward teachers preparing to return to in-person learning environments after COVID-related isolations.
“The isolation has really affected everybody and really brought mental illness and all these anxieties in life to the surface,” Price notes. “When these classes started, we were able to help people right away.”
Price was amazed to see the weight lifted from many shoulders, including his own. I never knew how much it would help me and the other adults we were working with,” Price explains. “It was amazing to watch.”
Navy veteran Paul McCreight’s experience with The Naples Players came full circle as he performed with them prior to his injuries. He was able to participate in a few improv sessions and recalls an incredible moment he’ll never forget.
“I took a certain pose one time—like a ‘ta-da,’” Paul says, “and the horse stepped up and did almost the same pose. It was awesome!”
To keep things trotting along, Naples Therapeutic Riding Center heavily relies upon volunteers. In fact, volunteers are needed now and in the future, as the center looks to expand its services.