Life in our Foothills November 2022 – Guiding Reins – Improving Lives through an Equine Assistance Wellness Program
Published 11:04 am Wednesday, November 16, 2022
“It was during my fourth session that I became an absolute believer in the power of a horse to heal a human heart,” reflects Red Palmer, an Army (and law enforcement) veteran. “One doesn’t know how much weight he’s carrying on his shoulders until it comes off.”
Red said he always felt a need to help other veterans. “But until I met Diane and her staff, I didn’t think that civilians could help veterans. It didn’t take me long to realize how people like Diane could be caring and how willing they are to put in the hard work and long hours to give veterans the help they need.”
The Diane that Red refers to is Diane C. Prewitt, the founder and executive director of the Guiding Reins program. After serving as a volunteer with TROT (Therapeutic Riding of Tryon) at FENCE for 13 years, Diane was ready to take on a “mission” that would have equal importance. She knew veterans could benefit through equine-assisted activities and wanted to find a way to use horses to help them work through their own special needs. Diane wanted to create a program that would provide an alternative approach to improving mental, physical, and emotional health.
Diane incorporated the program as a non-profit in 2018. At first, the programs were just hosting occasional family fun days. And while those were indeed fun, Diane knew she needed to develop her ideas into a consistent weekly hands-on program. She worked on grants including a small one from the VA to help her get started. By January 2020 the program was ready to move into full swing. At her first session, there were just two veterans, two horses, a PATH-certified instructor, and herself. But it was the start that she needed to take that first step to bigger and better things.
A program needs volunteers and a location and horses and money. It was a grassroots movement with Diane reaching out to others and pulling together all the pieces to make the program whole. She found a willing group of believers to help with every aspect of the Guiding Reins program. Finding veterans to be participants was just one more challenge. Early on they recognized that there were others in the community, in addition to veterans, who could also benefit from the program. They started to include first responders, members of law enforcement agencies, and other frontline workers including teachers. In fact, several employees from Polk County Schools participated in a special opportunity at Guiding Reins geared to their needs. The Guiding Reins staff works with employers and organizations that see this as an added benefit to their employee’s wellness.
An early participant and a true believer in the program was Justin Powell, a veteran who happens to own a store in downtown Landrum. Justin added a different way to let others know that help is available. Every Thursday morning at 8, Justin opens his shop (Rare Earth Botanicals) for a free coffee gathering called “Roasted Reins.” It’s a chance to chat informally with others who have had similar life experiences. And it’s here that Justin, now president of Guiding Reins, can tell others about his first-hand experiences working with the horses and with Diane and her staff.
It was over a cup of coffee at one of these Roasted Reins gatherings that Red Palmer was first introduced to the Guiding Reins program. Like Justin, Red became a believer in Diane’s work. He now serves as the program’s Chief Outreach Coordinator. And just like that, one by one through word-of-mouth, through personal invitations, by staffing booths at local events, placement of rack cards, social media, and other means…the program has found its place in the community.
Four veterans were sitting in a circle with two staff members and one volunteer the day I visited. The program starts with the group discussing some of the things they’ve learned in past sessions. They hash out some of the skills and tools they’ve learned that are helping them cope with everyday life. Each participant privately records their thoughts on paper after the sessions. No one is made to talk about these things, but the small group lends itself to feeling comfortable doing so. Even that is a useful skill to many of the participants. It doesn’t hurt to have a slew of barn animals standing by for extra support. One veteran had his new service dog (in training) by his side.
Here in the twelfth session of a sixteen-session program, it’s obvious the group is feeling good about their progress. They find it uplifting to be able to work with a small team to accomplish goals. Their work with the horses is all on the ground.
Veteran Bill Hamilton says, “Guiding Reins has been helpful in a lot of ways. Working with the horses has given me some different tools to help with my day-to-day tasks. I’m not comfortable being in large groups. This program has given me a voice and that has helped me manage being in groups a lot better. I am now able to communicate better with the public as well as with the horses.”
There is a special bond participants make with the horses they work with. Participants build trust with their horse and with their fellow cohorts to help carry out what might seem like a normal set of barn chores. But the value of learning how to do something new and do it correctly makes a difference. Getting a horse to trust someone new who is trying to put a bit in its mouth is no easy undertaking. It takes patience and skill and a bit of love…all traits the Guiding Reins program helps instill in its participants.
Diane explains how it takes a different set of skills to work with the horses. She gives an example of an activity when the participants had to get the horses through obstacles without touching the horse, without a halter, and without using food as a motivator. Each participant wrote down burdens on stickers and attached them to rocks which were carried around by a team member in a bucket.
When a group member was able to coax his or her horse through an obstacle, they would take the rock with the burden and leave it at the obstacle. They would then pass the bucket to another team member to carry. The burdens were personal to the participants such as money issues, family issues, memory loss, alcoholism, and more. Diane remembers one participant carrying all the burdens of the others in that bucket and never removing any. She came to the realization that this was reflective of her own life. This participant needed to get rid of some of her burdens instead of carrying them inside of her soul. Her experiences with the horses helped her shed some of the burdens she had been carrying for years. It was a life-changing moment and horses helped her see this. It was one of those many moments that Diane reflects on at the end of the day. She knows her work is working!
More to Know:
The Guiding Reins program is held at several area farms including Shady View Farm in Campobello, Winding Creek in Tryon, and the Equestrian Center at Bright’s Creek in Mill Spring. Fox Hideaway Farm in the Columbia area is starting a program with Guiding Reins and a farm in Greer wants to be a Guiding Reins site.
Check the website: guidingreins.org for additional information including a contact form.
Diane Prewitt can be reached at 864-457-3575 or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Roasted Reins takes place every Thursday morning from 8 am until 10 am at Rare Earth Botanicals, 118 East Rutherford Street in Landrum. No RSVPs are necessary, just show up.
Donations are welcome and can be made on the website, www.guidingreins.org