N.E.I.G.H. Program Aids Area Students, Veterans
GERRY — Assisted by miniature horses, Persell Elementary School students began to break down their emotional coats.
Inside the Homestead Stables in Gerry, students participated in the N.E.I.G.H. program’s “Beyond The Reins” initiative. The Homestead Stables serve as a host location for N.E.I.G.H., which stands for National Equine Institute of Growth through Healing.
“It helps the children learn how to focus, work together, learn communication skills and some leadership skills and how to get along a little better,” said Dena Hirliman, assistant executive director and facilitator.
The “Beyond The Reins” program attempts to help students to better understand their emotions and hopefully improve their focus through interactions with the horses. The student-oriented program is similar to “The Constance Project” that provides post-traumatic stress services to first responders and veterans for eight weeks. N.E.I.G.H. was created by Dawn Samuelson, who has been providing Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, or EAP, for those in need since 2000. “The Constance Project” is named after Samuelson’s late sister Constance Marie Davenport, a U.S. Air Force Veteran who took her own life at the age of 25.
The N.E.I.G.H. program was established this year as a nonprofit organization. N.E.I.G.H. is sponsored by Ed Shults Auto Group, Happy Hounds Hotel, Media One, Mane n’ Tail, Stagecoach West and Prevention Works. The program and the stables were also featured on an episode of the TV show Military Makeover with Montel Williams.”
On Friday, students interacted with miniature and regular horses in their second week in the program. The students were learning about their emotional coats, a term coined by Samuelson.
“It’s the philosophy that each one of us is wearing a protective outer layer that is made up of things that have happened to us throughout our lives,” Hirliman said. “When we’re together we can bond with the horses and the other people to learn how to take our emotional coats off.”
On Friday, students made literal, physical coats that signified emotional events that they have faced in their lives. As the students became more comfortable with the horse-related activities, they were seen removing the blue-colored coats to represent their emotional state.
Additionally, teachers at Persell were given professional development on emotional coats so that the lessons from N.E.I.G.H. continue after the eight weeks.
Kirk Allen, N.E.I.G.H. Board of Directors vice president, was present at Friday’s event and reflected on the importance of EAP and the N.E.I.G.H. program. Allen is a 30-year U.S. Navy veteran and is pursuing a master’s degree in veterans advocacy at SUNY Fredonia. Now serving on the board, he believes EAP can be a “mirror” to human emotion and effectively used to assist veterans, first responders and students with unresolved trauma.
“N.E.I.G.H. is really digging into the aspect of using that horse as a mirror of what we’re doing as humans and how we’re responding,” Allen said.
Allen said using a horse, or any emotional support animal, removes the human element and even “bias” from therapy sessions. He also believes placing veterans in an interactive and open setting instead of a small therapist room improves the therapy’s effectiveness.
“This is a method that teaches coping skills, resiliency, compartmentalization, understanding how people are responding to my behavior as a veteran,” he said.
Allen said now that the program is expanding, his efforts have been focused on raising awareness. A “Horseshoes for Heroes” fundraising event is being held Saturday, Nov. 23, to raise funds for first responders and veterans who have interest in “The Constance Project.” He noted that several health care companies provide coverage for EAP for veterans.
For Samuelson, who has seen an added focus on EAP over the years, was proud of how far her services have come.
“It was kind of neat that we were in the forefront of that, but now that’s it’s becoming recognized as a form of therapy we’re really thrilled,” Samuelson said.