Horse Play

VA grant funds new therapeutic equine program that partners veterans with horses to learn and teach while healing

EVERGREEN – Jim Vincent stood in the arena, in temperatures below freezing, trying to coax a large horse named Magpie into stepping sideways.

The horse could do it, therapist Natalie Norrell said while watching from the sidelines, but didn’t know it; it was a matter of Vincent working with Magpie to foster a relationship in which she trusts him to show her how.

As one of the first veterans to try out the pilot program for equine-assisted therapy, Vincent, 24, formed a bond with Magpie, while Norrell learned what does and doesn’t work in the new 5 by 5 Program designed for first responders and veterans.

The program – funded in part by an adaptive sports grant from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – seeks to help veterans and first responders develop coping skills to deal with traumatic experiences, depression, anxiety, or relationship issues while fostering resiliency and a sense of wellness on their own terms.

Natalie Norrell, right, gives Jim Vincent instructions as they work with Magpie on Dec. 14, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Norrell’s equine therapy business, Medicine Horse Center, received the funds from the VA in October, and she put together a six-week course for the program’s pilot run. Meeting once a week, the veterans learned the ins and outs of horsemanship, while also addressing mental and behavioral health issues.

Norrell has hosted similar programs, including EASITT (Equine Assisted Survivors of Interpersonal Trauma Therapy) for survivors of sexual abuse, domestic violence, rape, military sexual assault, and human trafficking.

Earlier this year, Norrell worked with the Abbie Shelter and the Soroptimist of Whitefish club to work with survivors for 12 weeks.

To get the 5 by 5 program off the ground, Norrell worked with Larry Cannon, veteran outreach program specialist from the Kalispell Veterans Center. Cannon is also how Vincent learned about the program.

Vincent, who separated from the U.S. Army earlier this year as a sergeant, worked as a sniper and paratrooper during his tour in Afghanistan. Originally from Arizona, he moved to Kalispell after serving and is now attending Flathead Valley Community College.

Magpie quickly became his favorite of the four horses Norrell provided for the course; at 10 years old, Magpie still had plenty to learn. The other horses had similar backgrounds, without much horsemanship work with humans.

Jim Vincent works with Magpie on Dec. 14, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Allowing the veterans to teach the horses instills a sense of pride as well as connection, Norrell said. They start out slowly, learning about herd dynamics as well as the basics of horse care in order to put focus on what is happening in the moment, a therapeutic technique called “mindfulness.”

“The vets want to jump on and cowboy up right away, but this is about relationships,” Norrell said, watching Magpie’s successes in sidestepping.

Vincent said he felt right at home during the course, having come from a horse background. But previous experience isn’t necessary, and Vincent said part of the joy he found in the sessions was learning and teaching something new.

“To me, a horse is a big, ol’ puppy dog,” Vincent said. “Tons of guys get service dogs; a horse or a dog, it’s something you get to bond with.”

Norrell, who is certified in equine assisted mental health clinical skills and techniques, said feedback included wanting more time with the horses, which she hopes to provide during the next session. It’s expected to start in April, and anyone who is interested can contact Larry Cannon at (406) 257-7308.

Even something as simple as teaching a horse to step over a stick can create a bond between the human and the animal, Norrell said. She’d love to be able to expand the program with more land and horses; time will tell if the program gets popular enough.

Despite having completed the 5 by 5 program, Vincent still feels his connection to Magpie. Such a bond was evident in the arena, where he issued gentle commands and used his body to coax Magpie into stepping sideways with her front hooves, and to cross her back feet over one another to step sideways.

Then, Vincent was tasked with stretching Magpie’s neck, using her reins to teach her how to twist her neck until her nose almost touched her massive shoulder.

And each time she succeeded, there was Vincent, offering gentle sternum rubs and smiles for a job well done.

For more information on Medicine Horse Center, visit