Horses have and will always be a large part of my life. Since as early as I can remember, I have always been drawn to, and fascinated by, horses. When I was very young, I would take the footstool from the family room and lift it up on top of the coffee table. Then, I would take string to make reins and tie loops at either end of another piece of string to make stirrups to create a likeness of a horse. I would wait patiently with my eyes glued to the old television set until the exact moment when Black Beauty would appear. I would sit tall upon my own ‘horse’ as I was drawn into the story as if I were there myself. It wasn’t long before my sisters and I became persistent in making it known to our parents that we HAD TO HAVE a horse. Finally, our dreams came true.
Following high school graduation, I moved to Vancouver to embark on a new life. Initially entering the workforce then carrying on to complete a degree in Psychology and Criminology, it wasn’t feasible to have a horse. It wasn’t until 2001 that I was in a position to eagerly welcome horses back into my life. By that time, I had been a Vancouver police officer for 5 years.
My experience as a teenager was not unlike that of many girls. I often felt like I didn’t fit in, I was very shy and insecure. Any emotional experience felt dramatic and exacerbated. My saving grace was being with my horse. No matter how bad I felt, I knew in his presence, that I would not be judged. I did not have to act differently to be liked, and I didn’t have to explain anything. I could simply sense his acceptance, warmth and unconditional love.
More recently, stressful experiences as a woman in the demanding career of policing: being exposed to consistent negativity, feeling a lack of organizational support, and the exhaustion I felt as my body received regular hits of adrenaline, were alleviated by the presence of horses in my life. I know now that had I not had my horses during this time, I would have left the policing life far earlier than I did.
Looking back on my life, I inherently knew the healing effect of horses on humans, but now I understand consciously how powerful horses are in teaching humans many life changing lessons.
The Police Connection:
In 1999 I began to volunteer with a group of Vancouver Police officers known as the Odd Squad. The Odd Squad created a gripping documentary chronicling the lives of a few hard core drug addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, “Through A Blue Lens.”
I remember the first day of filming as we drove through the south lane of the 100 East Hastings. There was a 30 -year old male, seated on the concrete in an alcove, blue face, mouth open and eyes closed. My first thought was that he was dead. We jumped out of the car to investigate and found that Curtis was still alive, barely. He had overdosed on heroin. He had stopped breathing. His pulse was weak. Paramedics arrived just as Curtis stooped breathing. He was given a shot of Narcan, a drug used to counter the effects of opiates. Paramedics helped him to breathe and within a few minutes, the Narcan had worked and Curtis sat up curious as to why there was a group of people around him. He had come back from the brink of death.
Through the days and nights of filming, I began to learn more about each addict- their family lives, their hopes, dreams, and who they were before they became drug addicts. I was aghast at how they lived: in decrepit rooming houses littered with needles, with disease and infection, using prostitution to support their drug habits, sitting or sleeping in laneways for days on end with rats running by and the stench of rotting garbage fouling the air. I couldn’t imagine how each life had come to this and how society was really okay with it (or so it seemed). I found myself becoming offended when I would hear people and other police officers refer to addicts as maggots, toads, or bums. They are human! They were not born there and they did not dream of becoming drug addicts when they were 8-years old. It just happened: “I just came down here to party”, “I wanted to try it to see what it was like – I had no idea I would be addicted after the first time:” “I had surgery and my doctor had me on morphine I became addicted – I was a school teacher you know,” “I made a bad choice……)” When I asked addicts what advice they would give to young people, they would overwhelming say “Don’t ever try it – not even once!” No matter how much drive or motivation each addict possessed to get clean and start a new life, their bodies told them otherwise. The result is that many have died from overdosing on drugs and some have been murdered. The other ‘lucky’ ones shuffle about while infected with one disease or another, look to crime to get their next fix or laze about in jail. Few, very very few, can find the resources in a timely fashion to get clean and recover. Drug abuse is the loss of human potential.
It was particularly difficult when I learned on Christmas Day that a body had been found carefully placed in a small duffle bag within a garbage bag and placed near a dumpster in a rooming house. The suspicion was that it was April, as she had not been seen for a few days. After further investigation at the morgue, there was final confirmation that it was indeed April’s body that lay upon the slab; the suspicion was that she had been murdered.
I was at my mom’s house for Christmas when I heard the news. I felt compelled to get back to Vancouver. I wanted to create a memorial video for April’s service which was to be held on January 1st, 2000. I spent hours pouring over video footage of her that had been taken over the years of filming. I located some footage of April in a recovery home. She was talking to her father on the phone, bubbly and excited that she had made it into recovery. She wore the biggest smile as she danced about in the small area that she was tethered to by the phone cord. It was the last time her dad ever spoke to her. I found myself bawling for hours viewing this scene, and others like it, over and over again.
It wasn’t long after that when I chose to work the beat in the Downtown Eastside. I thought that perhaps there was a way that I could make a difference. But day after day of experiencing their collective pain and suffering, my spirit began to wear down.
A New Hope:
While working with the Odd Squad, I had the privilege of meeting a group of at-risk girls enrolled in a program known as the Horse Resource Program. I began to volunteer with the group and accompany them to one of two farms they visited. Their duties were to assist in the clean up and care of horses followed by the occasional riding lesson. The feedback on the program was very positive but not so much so that it would survive government budget cuts. It did however, spark an idea that I had to create a program for girls that would not only prevent them from ever making a life-altering decision that could lead down a path of drug addiction, but it would provide the skills, tools, resources and inspiration, to flourish into amazing young women.
Over the years, I have gathered information, studied in the emerging field of Equine Guided Development, and attended college to learn life coaching practices. I even flew down to Minnesota to work with an organization that has been offering youth programs with horses for over 10 years. I wrote proposals to the Vancouver Police Department, hoping to run the program through this organization, but unfortunately resources for such a program was not available. I had no choice but to resign from a 13-year policing career to make it happen.
I am grateful to the co-founder of Empowered By Horses, Sharolyn Wandzura, and a heart felt thank you to our mentor, Sandra Wallin (www.chironsway.com), who has and continues to provide support and guidance. We have a great herd!
April’s memorial video