Alumna, animals aid others in coping with challenges

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Her office consists of goats, dogs, chickens, horses, a wallaby and even a zorse. To some, a menagerie like that would make for unusual co-workers. But for Morrigan Reilly-Ansons, they are part of her commitment to helping others cope with life’s challenges.

Reilly-Ansons, BA’07, runs Full Circle Ranch, a St. Thomas farm created to promote self-discovery and healing through the use of equine-assisted therapy. A psychotherapist, she uses her 20 horses (and other animals should they be preferred by client) as “an authentic and non-judgemental perspective to the therapy.”

“Part of what I love about it is can look a lot of different ways. So instead of trying to fit somebody into a box, you can really gear what you’re wanting to get out of the sessions with the animals,” she explained. “Instead of coming and just talking about dealing with your anxiety, you get to practice and learn and become aware of different patterns, skills and coping strategies you are using in your life with the horses.”

Equine-assisted therapy encompasses a range of treatments that involve activities with horses to promote human physical and mental health. Popularized for use with human physical health in the 1960s, the use of horses for mental-health treatment dates to the 1990s.

Reilly-Ansons says this approach to therapy has been used to deal with a range of challenges, from anxiety, depression and trauma, to addiction, grief, self-esteem/self-confidence and anger or stress management.

“The cool thing about the horses is they’re different than most of the other animals we have in our everyday life,” she explained, citing each horse with its own distinct personality, attitude and mood. “We have dogs and cats – and they are predators. But horses approach the world much differently because they’re are prey animals. It makes them super in tune with their environment.”

She added horses have a natural ability to evoke emotion within humans. Everyone has a reaction to them and often it involves either love or fear. These are two strong emotions, which many of life’s issues revolve around, she said. In working with the horses, in spite of these strong emotions, participants often build confidence and gain insight into the challenging situations they are facing.

“When we’re part of their environment, it makes them strongly aware of us as well. They can sense what is going on within somebody, be responsive and give immediate feedback to the person that, even me as a therapist, may not be aware of.”

Reilly-Ansons, who also earned a Grief and Bereavement certificate from Western Continuing Studies, is a registered member of the Ontario Association of Consultants Counsellors Psychometrists and Psychotherapists and a Certified Canadian Counsellor with the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association.

Initially interested in the Police Foundations program at Sarnia’s Lambton College, she began volunteering with Victim Services of Sarnia-Lambton at 18. Responding to emergencies ranging from domestic calls to sudden deaths, Reilly-Ansons began to realize she wanted to get in to the bereavement and counselling area, somewhere she could stay with people longer to help them through their difficult times.

She began volunteering with people from all walks of life, in a variety of settings including hospitals, correctional facilities, community mental-health agencies and residential treatment centres.

“I enjoyed that – but something was missing. That’s when I ended up finding out about animal assisted therapy,” she said. “I love working with people and always loved animals – then I found out I could combine it. It was the best of both worlds for me. It combined my two passions.”

For almost a decade, Reilly-Ansons and her team of coaches offer counselling, psychotherapy, personal growth and educational services in both individual or group therapy sessions.

Full Circle Ranch also offers an addiction services program and a veterans’ program, along with riding programs, trail riding, pack trips, goat yoga and a variety of child and youth initiatives.

“Just being outside at the ranch and seeing the animals often sets people at ease,” admitted Reilly-Ansons. “When I was doing my practice out of an office, often people would come with more anxiety and apprehension, but when they’re here it’s very informal and they get to meet and interact with all the animals. There is an immediate calmness to that.”