Nestled in a maze of wooded country roads in Sandy Hook is Zoar Ridge Stables - on the outside, a typical New England riding stable. On the inside, the farm has become a beacon of hope for a community shaken to its core by the events of December 14th, 2012.
Turning through the stone gates and onto the 30-acre farm, visitors are instantly treated to a bucolic, serene landscape of green lawns and riding rings, punctuated by the silhouettes of beautiful horses. Annette Sullivan and her husband Brian Sullivan, both Fairfield County natives, have been running Zoar for over 20 years teaching horsemanship and basic riding to 5 to 12 year olds.
The walls of Sullivan’s office are papered with photos, crayon drawings of horses and animals and notes from students. On December 14th, Sullivan, who describes her farm as a family, says that among their clients are 5 families that lost children. So shaken, on December 15th, the farm opened up to the entire community, for free.
“Town was so chaotic, you couldn’t go anywhere without running into media or police. It was a scary time,” said Sullivan. “We made the decision to open up the farm and allow people to come in and walk around, look at the animals, have snacks and do crafts. They needed a distraction and we knew we could provide them with a bit of that.”
Zoar Ridge opened up to the community every Sunday following, allowing residents to come and get away from the harsh reality slowly sinking in. As the weeks and months went on, Sullivan says some of her little riders started to talk more directly about what happened on December 14th.
“It kind of just started spilling out of them,” said Sullivan. “I don’t know if it’s because they felt safe or they were comfortable here but I quickly realized we were getting into topics that they needed a professional to help them with.”
Sullivan says she started researching online and quickly found the EAGALA Program. EAGALA, an international nonprofit, uses equine assisted therapy, or EAP, to address mental health and human development needs, particularly trauma. EAGALA staff quickly made their way to Newtown to help at Zoar Ridge. The program is open to all of those affected by the shootings with a particular focus on the families of the victims, students and first responders.
Embrace Hope now has its own resident EAGALA team of mental health professionals and equine specialists that specialize in young children who survive trauma. Sullivan says several equine facilitated therapies are now offered through Embrace Hope to address issues like PTSD, anxiety and grief.
“The horse is a metaphor,” said Sullivan. “Horses may seem big and intimidating but they’re gentle, sensory animals. They become a tool, a partner and a friend that the kids can count on. We want them to feel empowered again. We want to make sure they know they’re safe here. They can talk and share and they can try to heal, like all of us are trying to do.”
Initially, Sullivan says the therapy was provided pro bono however as the program has grown, the Embrace Hope Sandy Hook Foundation was a necessary next step. The funds raised through the volunteer-run Embrace Hope foundation will go toward paying for therapists.
“We don’t ever want to turn anyone away,” said Sullivan. “We have individuals and families using our services every week and we want to continue to be able to offer this to Newtown.”
Walking through the farm with Sullivan, she pointed out several “special” spots where families can sit and reflect: a special bench with an angel on the back, a small garden with two small angels watching over. Zoar Ridge really is a special place and thanks to Annette for sharing this story with us.