After losing her father and uncle within weeks of each other to COVID-19 last month, Emily Aho was determined to find a way to help those affected by the global pandemic.
The Jaffrey resident retired last year from a career in nursing, and says watching her fellow health care workers deal with the trauma COVID-19 has caused made her feel helpless.
As Aho, 62, gathered old photos of her father, Emilio DiPalma — a 93 year-old World War II veteran and resident of the Holyoke Soliders Home in Massachusetts, who died April 8 — she found her silver living. Inside the same closet as her dad’s memorabilia was a stack of her equine therapy books, which she kept after being certified for it in 2015.
“I looked online to see if there were programs for doctors and nurses, and there weren’t any. Why? Because doctors and nurses heal themselves. They don’t ask for help,” Aho said. “... so that’s when I decided I’d do a program for them.”
Heal the Heroes — which launches Monday — will use equine therapy to help health care workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 outbreak with their daily stress. Eventually, Aho said, the program will also include first responders and veterans.
The free program will be run by Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center in Jaffrey, where Aho is the director, and True Hope Therapeutic Horsemanship in Keene.
Equine therapy aims to help people address emotional or behavioral challenges, as well as develop attributes like self-confidence and problem-solving.
“You have to build a relationship with the pony before they are going to understand what you want and cooperate,” Aho said. “It’s communication, it’s team work and it’s a feeling of accomplishment.”
Participants will start their sessions — one hour per week for four weeks — at Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center to begin learning these skills, Aho said.
Only two participants will be allowed during each session, she noted, to maintain social distancing. They must be free of COVID-19 symptoms. All participants will be required to wear masks, Aho said, and all horse equipment will be sanitized in between sessions.
The ponies are the teachers, and will guide participants through a series of objective-based exercises, she said. Throughout the four weeks, the ponies will not be ridden, Aho noted.
One course is four poles in the ground, set up in a square, with a glove placed in the middle. The goal is for the human to guide the horse to step on the glove, without the human touching the poles.
“Sounds easy right? It’s really hard,” she said. “Ponies and horses don’t judge, and they don’t lie ... they are really great teachers.”
Following the roughly 45-minute exercise, Aho will debrief with attendees, asking what they feel they learned or achieved that day.
After four weeks, attendees will move on to a six-week program at True Hope Therapeutic Horsemanship to work with horses and continue building on what they learned at the conservancy. This includes further communication with horses and building up horsemanship skills.
If desired, participants can learn therapeutic riding, according to Kate Thorndike, president of True Hope.
“We hope that the people who come through this program are going to have an opportunity to leave some of the stresses and concerns and care-taking that they’ve been required to do, and leave it outside the door, and come in and relax,” said Thorndike, 59, of Nelson.
The program has only a handful of participants signed up so far, but Aho said she has high hopes.
And, as she put it: “What better way to get help than with an adorable pony?”
For more information or to sign up for Heal the Heroes, visit healtheheroes.com. Newfoundland Pony Conservancy Center can be reached at 532-8809, and True Hope Therapeutic Horsemanship can be reached at 757-2808.