The Healing Power of Sophie
Standardbred Welfare Feature
MILTON, February 7, 2023– Lynne St. Jacques was looking for a horse. Not just any horse, but one with the ability to change lives.
As an Equine Facilitated Learning Specialist and Executive Director of Heartwood Equine Connections, a registered Canadian charity, St. Jacques has seen, first-hand, the difference a horse can make in the lives of the women who come to the farm in Middlesex, Ontario.
A safe haven for women who have suffered trauma from abuse, Heartwood is a centre for counselling and care, employing the use of horses as therapists in the healing process.
“It was in 2019 and I was doing equine therapeutic work with women who had dealt with various forms of abuse,” recalled St. Jacques. “I was working with other clients, but that was becoming more and more my focus. There are women in the area who really need that help. I had two horses at the time but one was suffering from laminitis, and I knew she was in such pain that we were going to have to put her down. That was in the spring, and the workshops started at the end of April, and I needed to get a horse fairly quickly. I had a Standardbred before, and I thought highly of them because of their nature.”
It led St. Jacques to reach out to the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society (OSAS). Founded in 1996, OSAS assists in the adoption and relocation of retired and non-racing Standardbred horses within Ontario.
The farm, home to dozens of Standardbreds, is in Moffat, Ontario, about a 90-minute drive northeast from Heartwood.
One of the residents is Gostreet, a daughter of Angus Hall who enjoyed a banner racing career, winning 25 times, to go along with 55 top-three finishes and over $305,000 in earnings from 95 career starts. She was also an O’Brien Award finalist in the Older Trotting Mares category in 2009.
“I called OSAS and asked if there were any mares available and Joanne [OSAS administrator, Colville] directed me to Gostreet. I went up to look at her and brought a friend along with me. The friend was looking at conformation, and if she was sound. I was looking to see if she would connect with me, which is so important with a horse who is doing that work. She’s tall and I’m short, so that was the first thing I noticed. I lost the concern about her height because she was so approachable. She was really greeting me. There was a connection. It happens with the eyes.”
St. Jacques filled out the adoption papers the moment she got home.
Soon after the papers were submitted, Gostreet arrived at Heartwood, taking to her new surroundings with ease.
Thrilled to have the bay mare in her stable and optimistic that the former pacer would be ideal in her new calling; St. Jacques couldn’t shake the reality of needing Gostreet to be fully prepared for her new role in a month’s time.
“I was worried about getting her trained because I hadn’t had any time to work with her and to get to know her. I train with the Parelli method (a basic training for humans and horses, which is based on mutual communication, on respect and trust between the two, which considers the varying needs of different horse personalities). If the horse knows Parelli, then the activities I have the women do with the horses, it just blends.”
Gostreet quickly allayed any fears St. Jacques had about the horse being ready.
“She was a natural from the beginning.”
One month after she arrived, Gostreet, now known as Sophie, was ready to meet the first group of women to arrive at Heartwood.
“I don’t quite remember what it was, but I had a fancy name for her that started with the letter K. There is another animal communicator at the stable, and she told me that she spoke to her and Gostreet said she wanted to be known as Sophie. It’s Greek for wisdom.”
A wise choice, St. Jacques said with a laugh.
“It’s very appropriate. It’s perfect.”
Sophie has embraced her role working with the women who come to Heartwood.
“I am trained to be able to communicate with her,” offered St. Jacques. “The clients I have, 90 percent of them have never been near a horse. So, they’re a little afraid. The first thing they do is go into the stall with her and I have them start to groom with their hand. As they are doing that, Sophie actually gives me information. She will show me if the person is sad, holding on to anger… she’s able to do that with her movement. Right away, I can say to that person, ‘What is your sadness about?’ And that starts it all. But that first connection is meant to help them get over any fear they might have about horses. They run their hand over her and she’s very quiet. She doesn’t move around. It’s her instinct, she knows that she needs to stand still.”
It’s quite the opposite, however, whenever St. Jacques pulls into the driveway.
A familiar face is always waiting to greet her.
“She recognizes my car when I come to the stable. She comes to the gate. It’s a great feeling. Of course, she knows she’s going to get treats, but she really enjoys people. When she sees someone, she wants them to come and meet her. If people come into the stable, she tries to get their attention. She pokes her head out and looks them straight in the eye. She’s always happy to see me. She likes to cuddle with her head. She’ll put her head down by my neck and loves when we are close like that.”
Now 19, Sophie is anything but a one-trick pony.
Beyond her therapeutic work, she is also excelling as a riding horse.
“I’m not young, so I needed a horse that was going to be very steady. And she is. We’ve just gone through hunting season in this area, and you’ll hear a gunshot go off. She’ll stop, but she never jumps. She’ll stop when she’s scared, I’ll calm her, and then we’ll be able to go on from there. Something could fly up, but she never gets flustered. She is, for me, the perfect horse. She is safe and kind. I’m taking lessons and trail riding, and she is the ideal companion.”
One who appreciates a song, especially a particular tune from just over 70 years ago made famous by Doris Day.
St. Jacques will often sing while riding and often sings “My Buddy,” which includes the verse, ‘Nights are long since you went away. I think about you all through the day. My buddy, my buddy. Nobody quite so true.’
“I hope she likes my singing. I think she likes it. There is very much a connection between us, almost spiritual.”
She’s hopeful those who depend on Heartwood can, on some level, forge a similar bond with Sophie.
“These women have been through unimaginable, life-altering experiences. When they come here, we want them to feel safe and know we are here for them, to help them in any way we can. Seeing the interactions these women have with Sophie… it is truly wonderful.”
Chris Lomon, Woodbine Communications / @WoodbineComms