A miniature horse named Liberty became the first equine to step foot in a Canadian prison earlier this year, in what has evolved into a pilot project combining equine-assisted therapy and corrections work, through Spirit Horse NL.

Offered by Stable Life Inc., a registered not-for-profit, Spirit Horse NL is based in Portugal Cove, Newfoundland, and stands for Supporting Peers In Recovery-based Interactive Therapy.

Spirit Horse NL is run by Erin Gallant, the program creator and director. She holds a diploma in Therapeutic Recreation, is a trained mental health peer supporter and a competition coach specialist through Equestrian Canada.

“Peer support programs work by offering people support, encouragement and hope that recovery is possible,” said Gallant. “It considers the wellness of the whole person and focuses on health and recovery rather than illness and disability, in order to assist people in finding their own path to recovery.”

Gallant’s team includes Melanie Gray, the program director with Partners in Process Equine Learning Centre and creator of the Equine Developed Interacting Tools Program, as well as Danielle Hogan, a clinical occupational therapist with a community mental health and addictions program within Eastern Health.

The Spirit Horse NL staff also includes nine therapy horses, that participate in programing on a rotating basis.

“Equine-assisted therapy with the foundation of peer support, is an innovative, evidence-based approach that assists clients with various mental health issues to feel empowered to progress through their recovery journey with choice and autonomy,” said Gallant. “One of the core beliefs from a recovery perspective is that people should be taught the skills to take charge of managing their own health. Teaching people to help themselves can improve their quality of life and ultimately assist them to achieve their optimal level of performance in any life role.”

Spirit Horse NL has worked with inmates at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary and the Newfoundland & Labrador Correctional Centre for Women. Funding for the programs was provided by the NL Beard and Moustache Club with proceeds from their 2018 Merb’ys calendar. It featured 30 burly, bearded men in mermaid tails, and raised $300,000. “This donation completely transformed the work we were able to do,” said Gallant.