Equine Encounters

Ironstone Farm offers retreats or “Equine Encounters” to a variety of groups, allowing people unusual opportunities to think about and address personal issues in new ways.

Professional facilitators at each equine-assisted therapy session use the special relationship between people and horses to help people build a renewed sense of self, confidence, trust, and support, which is offered by truly wonderful horses.

Such programs are offered for:

The programs are not about horseback riding, although mounting a horse may be included for those who are interested and able to do so.


Program for combat veterans


Weekly opportunities, twice-weekly opportunities and occasional Sunday retreats

Registration is required

To register, call 978-475-4056



Veterans who have experienced trauma and anxiety are saying a new program involving the horses at Ironstone Farm has been better therapy for them than anything else they’ve done since returning from combat.

Veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress have high rates of unemployment, poverty, homelessness and abuse. The Veterans Experience at Ironstone Farm is meant to help veterans adjust to their non-combat and/or post-military lives.

War on Terror combat veteran Clinton Strong, says he often used fear and intimidation to get what he wanted. That didn’t work with the horses — and the Ironstone retreat helped him to realize it wasn’t working well with other people either.

[caption id="attachment_937" align="alignleft" width="225"]Clint, a War on Terror combat veteran who participated in Ironstone's first veterans retreat, volunteers at Ironstone Farm. Clint, a War on Terror combat veteran who participated in Ironstone’s first veterans retreat, volunteers at Ironstone Farm.[/caption]

“It’s kind of hard to intimidate a 1,000-pound animal,” Clint laughs. “But when we were in the service you had to bark orders, use our rank and our strength to lead others. That’s not necessarily the case in the civilian world. That lack of voice communication really made me realize how I was using my body language and other forms of communication.

“It was a whole lot simpler when I showed the horse what I wanted it to do, when I led by example,” he says.

Robert Kirk, a veteran of two War on Terror tours overseas, agrees.

“It’s a big difference telling a PFC to go to point B and they’re running, than to get a horse to follow you,” he says with a chuckle. “If they don’t want to move, they’re not going to move.”

The program was adapted for veterans at Ironstone by former Navy Seal Dave Ferruolo, a master of social work student, with the support of the two retreat-program creators: University of New Hampshire Kinesiology Professor Pam McPhee, and the late Paul Smith, Ph.D, a faculty member of Prescott College and director of Centaur Leadership Services.

Following a successful pilot program in the spring of 2013, Ironstone Farm has been offering additional programs as funding has allowed.

Robbie and Clint say the equine encounter for veterans with post-traumatic stress and other issues with reintegration was more effective for them than traditional methods, such as sitting on a couch talking to a counselor. Veterans like Robbie say the program also helped them to trust someone or something outside their military unit.

“I never thought a horse would teach me so much about myself, but it really did. And having the support from the therapists here to guide me and show me what I was doing wrong and how I was acting and why the horse wasn’t doing what I needed it to do or wanted it to do, it made a big difference,” said Clint.

Click here to visit the videos page, which includes a brief video about our veterans program.

“With a counselor you say something and it’s ‘how do you feel?’ Sometimes I’m just saying what I think someone wants to hear,” says Robbie. “Here, it’s an inner experience where you’re figuring out all at once how to make things move.”

When military personnel are sent off to war they receive weeks of basic training. When they return, there is little to help them reintegrate, say Clint and Robbie. They say the program helps people returning from the War on Terror with the transition back to civilian life.

“It’s a cool concept to take your relationship with that horse to get that horse to do something, and understand how you’re controlling the situation – or not controlling the situation – and put that into your real life with your relationships with other people, with civilians, from children to adults. It helps you take a different approach to things,” says Robbie.

Robbie and Clint have been so impressed with the program that they have been volunteering at Ironstone Farm each week, helping other clients at the farm.

To help support the new veterans program call Ironstone Farm at 978-475-4056.


For survivors of cancer

jean 8Ironstone Farm offers one-day retreats for cancer survivors, using the power of horses to remind survivors of their own strength. The retreats are open to men and women who have, or had, a cancer diagnosis.

Learn more, from people who have attended a retreat

Professional facilitators at each Equine Encounter use the special relationship between people and horses to help people build a renewed sense of self, increase confidence, regain trust, and learn to feel the support offered by truly wonderful horses. It can be a time for addressing personal issues and to allow space for introspection.

This year, 2014, marks the sixth year that encounters for survivors are offered at Ironstone. No horse experience is necessary. Ironstone Farm is a working farm and each participant must obtain a physician’s approval to attend (particularly if you have concerns about being exposed to hay, dust or animal hair/dander).

For more information and to have a registration form sent to you, email programs@challengeunlimited.org.


For elders with Alzheimer’s and other memory issues

In 2012, Ironstone Farm offered its first retreat for people with dementia or impaired memory.

Like many pilot programs at Ironstone, the encounter was created at the suggestion of a volunteer. The volunteer had a relative with memory issues living at Atria Marland Place in Andover, an assisted living facility.

Tricia Horgan, division director of life guidance operations in New England for Atria, says interacting with the horses for just a short time made a difference for residents who participated.

“One of the women never came out of her room before, and now she’s a participant in the group,” said Tricia, a certified dementia practitioner with a masters in education. “She gets up, smiles, walks around. She was asking last week, ‘You know what would be nice? To see the horses.’”

Tricia, who has spent more than 25 years working with people with impaired memory, says she and others at assisted living facilities would like to see the program become more common.

“They told me this woman used to mumble. Now she talks. When she was combing the horse, brushing the horse she was talking to it,” she said. “That stimulation sparked something in her brain. It’s almost like she ‘woke up.’”

For more information and to have a registration form sent by email or mail please contact us by email at programs@challengeunlimited.org.

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