Helping Equine First Responders

Equine

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Following the Maui wildfires, a unique equine-assisted program was created for first responders. 

First responders are on the front lines of care and support, but are often the last ones to seek help for themselves. Their experiences in providing medical care and emergency assistance can often be traumatizing. In Hawaii, Haku Baldwin Center opened an equine-assisted mental health and wellness program in response to the Maui wildfires to provide essential support for first responders and their families.

The Equine Resilience Program opened in September 2023 following the devastating Maui wildfire disaster. Thanks to support from the Maui Strong Fund by the Hawai’i Community Foundation and Maui United Way, sessions are offered for free to first responders, including individuals, families, spouses and children, crews, and other groups within the first responder community.


“Many of these families are in crisis, having lost their own homes while working to save the homes of others, especially in Lahaina and Kula,” said Chrissy Stout, program director, Haku Baldwin Center. “The stigma surrounding mental health issues can prevent them from seeking professional help. That’s where horses come in.”

Unlike traditional therapy, the presence of horses can break down barriers, making it easier for individuals to engage in a therapeutic process that may be less intimidating than a conventional one-on-one conversation with a therapist. Interacting with horses can offer a profound mirror into one’s own emotional state, Stout said. As prey animals, they have an innate ability to be highly attuned to our non-verbal cues and inner feelings. This instinct is imperative to their survival.

“This allows individuals to connect on a deep, visceral level, fostering self-awareness and personal growth,” Stout said. “Horses also offer immediate feedback, helping individuals develop crucial life skills such as communication, trust, and boundary setting. In Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine-Assisted Learning sessions, horses serve as co-facilitators, helping individuals build resilience and self-confidence, making it a powerful and distinctive approach.”

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A ‘safe and welcoming environment’

Haku Baldwin Center’s outreach includes the Maui Police Department and the Maui Fire Department and is receiving referrals from the psychologist contracted by MPD and MFD. Anyone in the first responder community is welcome to register for sessions, including Law Enforcement, Fire, Paramedics, Emergency Medication Technicians, Search and Rescue, 911 Dispatchers, Military, and other Medical and Mental Health Teams who responded to the recent wildfires on Maui. All sessions are private and confidential.

Stout said the response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive, with the most significant response from first-responder families. “Each member of these families – spouses, children, and the first responders themselves – is experiencing significant trauma,” she said. “Families are returning week after week as they see progress and feel supported and safe with our experienced team.”

The entire community on Maui has experienced collective trauma following the wildfires. “The level of devastation is still hard to believe months later,” Stout said. During the initial days and weeks of this tragedy, thousands of people and their animals were displaced, and many lost their lives.

“The horse community on Maui is one that is near to our hearts at Haku Baldwin Center. We have 20-25 horses on property at our facility and were on evacuation watch multiple times. Our neighbors helped us, and we helped them. The Maui Humane Society and the Hawaii Animal Rescue Foundation are among those organizations in the community that helped rescue horses and other animals, provided temporary and permanent homes for them and their humans, and secured hay and feed donations for those who had lost their livelihoods following the wildfires. The community came together with an incredible rescue and recovery effort that was witnessed across the world. The people of Maui are incredible.”

For more information about the first responder program, visit: https://hakubaldwincenter.org/first-responders.

 

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Iryna Inshyna/shutterstock.com

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