Years after attending a free retreat for cancer survivors at Ironstone Farm in Andover, Pat Wymore still gets choked up talking about the breakthrough she experienced there.
“I had 12 surgeries. I didn’t realize it, but I was having little panic attacks every time I went in to the doctor’s, because your body goes through so much trauma,” said Wymore. “I can accept things differently now. I learned that from them.”
For six years, Ironstone Farm has been offering free retreats to people who have had cancer diagnoses. Run by professional facilitators, the equine-assisted therapy programs use the powerful relationship between people and horses to build a renewed sense of self, increase confidence and overcome fears and insecurities.
Kathy Kelly of Massachusetts, who is in treatment for cancer, came to a June 2014 retreat, mostly looking for an unusual experience rather than a life-changing one, she said. She learned about the retreat during an appointment at Dana-Farber.
“I was really picturing the day as fun with horses. I know that’s not what the brochure said. I came away with so much more than I ever could have expected. It wasn’t about horses. It was about finding your inner strength,” said Kelly. “The message was delivered subtly but was felt very powerfully.
“It gave another resource for being able to withstand the ups and downs of what’s going on in your life medically. You can handle it. I found it a very peaceful message and one I keep going back to,” she said.
Hear more about Kathy Kelly’s Ironstone experience
Retreats for cancer survivors are free to participants thanks to the generosity of the Behrakis Family Foundation and the Boston North Cancer Association. No horse experience is necessary.
In fact, when Wymore, a breast- and lung-cancer survivor, came to her retreat, she was afraid of horses. She attended the equine encounter based on the recommendation of her Lowell General support-group advisor.
“It was 1,000 times more than I ever expected. I had no clue it would be so wonderful. I felt so clear about myself and my health. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay there. Other people said that too,” said Wymore. “By the end it was a whole experience that I could never have imagined — more support and love than I’ve ever received in my life – because you went through a whole process.”
Wymore began volunteering at Ironstone Farm, becoming one of the 200 volunteers each week who help its nonprofit programs provide therapy to special needs children and others. She lived in Lowell for 13 years before moving back to her home state of Texas and opening an art studio, but she still misses Ironstone, calling her retreat there “the best” of many programs and support groups she’s experienced.
“I used to be in corporate America. This was exceptionally well-run, and exceptionally well-planned and well-timed. Someone really put a lot into this program,” agreed Kelly. “It’s sort of magical when something comes together that well. And it doesn’t happen by accident.”
Equine-encounter retreats are primarily unmounted programs involving many exercises with and without horses. One exercise may include a mounted session, but an unmounted option is included for those not interested or able to sit astride a horse.
“It helped tremendously with a renewed perspective on dealing with cancer – that there’s a whole lot more in you than you used to be aware,” said Kelly. “The horses were the tools to help you get there but it wasn’t about the horses.
“It was fun. None of the other messages would have gotten through if it wasn’t fun. It was all smiles,” said Kelly. “It doesn’t feel intense when you’re there. It feels happy and relaxed. But the message is there and it gets through to everyone: You can do things you thought you’d never be able to do, in ways you never thought of doing them.”
For more information, including a registration packet, contact Challenge Unlimited at Ironstone Farm at 978-475-4056, or email Carolyn Burt at email@example.com. Registration forms are required and can be emailed or mailed to those interested in upcoming retreats.
Ironstone Farm, 450 Lowell St., Andover, is located on Route 133 off both Interstate 93 and Route 495, 30 minutes north of Boston. It is home to two nonprofit organizations (Challenge Unlimited and Ironstone Therapy) that use the dynamic power of horses to provide therapy for special needs children and adults, combat veterans, survivors of cancer, teens at risk and others.
Want to volunteer at Ironstone? Click here for a volunteer packet.