The December 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School devastated many Westporters. Newtown is close to home.
It hit Brian and Annette Sullivan especially hard. For them, Newtown is home.
For the past 20 years, Brian — a member of Staples’ Class of 1982 — and Weston High grad Annette have operated Zoar Ridge Stables.
But children have always been Brian and Annette’s favorites. They have 2 girls of their own, and they loved the children who came to Zoar Ridge for lessons, summer camps and horse parties.
The couple did more than provide rides. They taught hundreds of Newtown kids the responsibilities of owning a horse. Children were expected to help groom and pick up after the animals. It was a win-win-win situation, for the Sullivans, the youngsters and the horses too.
Many Zoar Ridge kids attended Sandy Hook Elementary School. One of Brian and Annette’s students was killed in the shooting. Several others had siblings who died.
It was a terrible day for the Sullivans. But that weekend, they opened their stable for kids to ride. “We just wanted some place where they could get away from the press, the attention — everything,” Annette says.
As they rode, brushed horses or did crafts projects Annette organized nearby, they started talking. Some spoke about what they’d seen. Others expressed fears for their friends, or the future.
“I’m not a therapist,” Annette notes. “My goal is just to provide happiness. But because the horses gave kids a place to feel comfortable, I realized we could do a lot more than we thought.”
She had heard about “horse therapy” — the formal term for equine-assisted psychotherapy — so she reached out, to professionals and through Facebook, to learn more.
She discovered that equine specialists select the appropriate horse for each client. Working on the ground — not in the saddle — therapists guide children through customized sessions.
With EAGALA — an international non-profit equine therapy organization — she worked with local resident Jimmy Downes to develop a program at Zoar Ridge.
That evolved into Embrace Hope — Sandy Hook Equine Assisted Therapy, a foundation aimed at providing funds and facilities to Sandy Hook victims and siblings for years to come.
“Right now, everyone is offering their services pro bono,” Annette says. (Including Miggs Burroughs, who designed a logo featuring 26 stars — 1 for every student and educator killed that day — reaching skyward.)
“But what about when these kids get to be 10 or 12 years old? We need a way to pay for this long-term.”
EGALA teams from all over New England have helped. Nearly 20 families are involved so far.
“This is not ‘hug a horse,'” Annette emphasizes. “It’s structured, but it’s based on where the kids are, and where they are going.”
In one session, Annette says, a child was asked to lead her horse “to school.” The girl said, “But what if he doesn’t want to go to school that day?” The youngster’s fears about school were addressed by the therapist through the horse.
In another session, a boy hurled balls at hoops, knocking them over. Then — petting a horse — he calmed down.
One Zoar Ridge horse has only one eye. “Watching him deal just fine with life — despite what happened — is great for the kids to see,” says Annette.
The Sullivans have not been immune to their own tragedy. Just before Thanksgiving in 2009, their beautiful home near the stables burned to the ground.
But their Embrace Hope Foundation is the current focus of their lives.
“Feeling like we’re helping the kids of Sandy Hook is huge,” Annette says with passion.
“These are 5- and 6-year-olds whose sense of security has been shattered. The fact that they can come here, play with horses, get some help and have fun is just so important.”
(To learn more about Embrace Hope — Sandy Hook Equine Assisted Theraphy Foundation, click here.)