Horses & Healing
How A Whisper Changed Lives
It started with a whisper:
That whisper happened in an Eau Claire WI church pew on a typical Sunday morning in 1998, but that one whisper led to something quite extraordinary. It launched Trinity Equestrian Center, (TEC). Toni Mattson owns TEC with her husband Bill and her sister, Jan Behm. During the service that day, the sermon about getting kids from inner cities into a more peaceful setting changed the trajectory of our lives”, she states.
“I leaned over and whispered to my husband that I really think God is calling us to do this. To work with kids in the Milwaukee, Minneapolis, St. Paul region… Chicago. Bring them out and introduce them to the world of green grass and horses.” At the time we didn’t own Trinity.
One day Bill brought home the sales sheet for what was then Pinewood Stables. It was huge, super expensive and I thought, “what are you doing, are you crazy?” It just kept coming in front of him. It just kept coming up and up and up. Finally we said, “OK God, what are you doing here? Is this as crazy as we think it is?’” Toni recalls asking her sister and husband, “What do you think about all three of us selling our homes, collectively putting our assets into this place and start a horse ranch?” Trinity Equestrian Center became a reality!
Less than a year into their mission, they found themselves in the fight of their lives and livelihood. Toni said a damp hay bale started their barn on fire, destroying a large part of their facility. It was a night she will never forget. “It was amazing that no horses died!” As Bill was helping evacuate the horses, he suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital by our son. In the midst of the whole thing, the barn is burning, Bill’s having a heart attack, I’m just sitting here thinking, “Seriously, you’ve got to be kidding me.’” Toni shakes her head at the madness that night. She can’t believe the danger her whole family and their family of horses faced that night. Everyone came out OK, but Toni says there were many worries. “What was interesting was that we received call after call from community members wondering if we were going to close. I said no, no, no, we haven’t even gotten started yet.”
She said, “That was an epiphany. That’s when our mission came alive. This is where the rubber meets the road. Tested under fire I think. Trial by fire!” More than a decade later, Toni is blessed to have lost count of the children they’ve helped. Our program has expanded to now help children with disabilities through therapeutic riding, we now offer a mentorship program, emotional therapy for kids in need, a summer ranch day care, boarding, lessons, training, corporate development and military veteran therapy.
Toni remembers working really hard to educate people and county agency workers on the power of the horse. “It’s far enough out the norm where people who used to tilt their heads and think, what?” 13 years ago people thought, “Horses as therapists… that’s weird.” I remember thinking I can’t wait until we get our first county contract. Now looking back I realize, “Oh my gosh, 13 counties. It’s amazing.” Over the years, as I’ve watched the programs evolve at TEC, I’ve learned that horses are intuitive. They don’t need people to say a word to know what’s going on. If someone is anxious, stressed, angry or scared, they know it. Toni says young people who experience it have breakthroughs very quickly. “Their willingness to participate is instant. They really have the relationship with the horse, while the human relationship becomes secondary! We are way okay with that. The horses take the lead and they are just fabulous. Just naturally fabulous therapists.”
A lasting legacy had already been established in the hearts of countless kids who walked through the stable doors over the years, but in 2009, TEC stepped up in a new way. They saw a need among military veterans who were returning home suffering invisible war wounds. So far, hundreds of these veterans suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been helped, all at no charge to them.
“Primarily the whole gig with our veterans is, we’re going to do it one way or another. Makes me cry. It’s the best work we’ve ever done. It’s the hardest work we’ve ever done. Because, emotionally these guys and gals are wrecked.” Toni cries as she tells us about the courageous men and women who come through their doors.“They are in a really tough spot, but it’s an enormous honor to work with them. They come to us in situations where many of them have tried to commit suicide and all they need is someone to come alongside of them. Someone they can trust. When they come to us, it’s all about relationship.”
Operation WE CARE is a free Equine Assisted Therapy (EAP) program for vets. They started with one team (a therapist and a certified equine specialist) and served two veterans per week. Now they have 17 sessions a week. Toni smiles as she recalls the rocky start. Funds were sporadic, but the commitment was bountiful. “We had an agreement that if we had funds, we get paid. If not, we don’t get paid. We used to get paid once a year. And that was ok.” 1,900 free veteran sessions later, the program keeps growing and so does the need. TEC raises money and applies for grants to keep it going. What keeps her and the volunteers going is seeing the impact and the life saving moments happen with the horses. With the trust we have here, that’s what it’s all about, for them to find the peace to come back home again,” Toni says.
“One of our veterans who carried a suicide note with him for 11 years said after five weeks of spending time with her (Lily), came to us in tears the next session, and I thought the wheels fell off. He said, “No, they are tears of joy. I want to live. I have things to do. I want to help people.” Now he’s a keynote speaker at veterans’ events. He’s now paying it forward. What God does here is off the charts. It’s amazing and it’s such an honor to be a part of it.”
Watch for our annual Horsepower For Veterans Motorcycle Run, Show and Fundraiser, plus our annual Women’s Veteran Workshop programs!
PROGRAMS AT TRINITY
- Ranch care
- Horsemanship clinic
- Mentoring program
- Veterans therapy
- Autism programs
- Corporate development workshops
- Equine assisted therapy (non-mounted)
- Therapeutic riding (mounted)
- Driving program
(for folks who can’t get on a horse but could drive a horse-drawn cart)
HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED:
Go to the website for more information and to donate: www.trinity-ec.com Eau Claire, Wisconsin, Horses &Healing, How A Whisper Can Change Lives, originally published in Queen of the Castle Magazine, by Sarah Stokes.
For the original full version visit www.queenofthecastlemagazine.com