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Riding Beyond once again

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Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Trish Broersma walks with her horse Mystic at her Ashland ranch.
Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune Trish Broersma pets her horse Mystic at her Ashland ranch.
With pandemic restrictions easing, horse nonprofit readies free workshops for breast cancer survivors

A Southern Oregon nonprofit is prepared to connect as many as a dozen breast cancer survivors with a soothing equine experience as it resumes hands-on workshops this spring.

Riding Beyond of Ashland is readying April and May workshops geared toward breast cancer survivors and thrivers, its first in a year. The nonprofit’s founder, Trish Broersma, says there’s room for more women interested in the free therapeutic sessions.

The series of four small group sessions in Ashland involve a mix of writing and storytelling exercises, along with playful and safe interactions with two horses and a donkey.

Broersma, who founded the nonprofit in 2013, said she’s witnessed women recovering from breast cancer experience “a happiness and joy they often haven’t experienced in months, maybe years.”

Many women begin the sessions in a “closed-off” place. The women often don’t want to be touched, and they may have lost a sense of purpose in their lives, she said.

“They just aren’t sure how to attend to their well-being,” Broersma said.

One of the workshop’s first interactions has participants greet the nonprofit’s two horses, a half-Arabian named Mystic Moon and a Rocky Mountain horse named Journey.

The breast cancer survivors approach the animal — in a safe environment involving riding instructors certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, and other trained volunteers — and learn to watch for welcoming signs and indicators that the animal would like to be touched.

“They burst into tears because it’s so moving,” Broersma said. “Touching a horse is much safer than touching another person.”

Broersma said she has seen studies of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder that indicate horses help bring heart rhythms closer to one associated with “calm, peace and joy.” She said the women she helps have similar PTSD struggles stemming from their experiences with breast cancer.

“They can’t take a deep breath for instance,” Broersma said. “They have persistent anxiety.”

Even for those whose cancer is in remission, it can be cold comfort because survivors know their cancer could return any year.

“Every little sniffle ... often triggers their anxiety,” she said.

Walking with Mystic in a south Ashland pasture Thursday afternoon, Broersma marveled at her horses’ instinct for zeroing-in on the person in a crowd needing a heart-to-heart connection.

“They’ll pick one person,” Broersma said. “It’s invariably someone going through something. They just have a great spirit about them.”

Survivors impacted by the workshops often go on to become volunteers for the nonprofit.

Broersma said she’s grateful to be able to resume in-person workshops. Although she was surprised at what she was able to accomplish via Zoom in 2020, and the people from across the country and around the world she was able to reach through virtual workshops, her strongest results come from face-to-face interaction with the horses.

There are five openings for afternoon group workshops starting the first week of April, and another seven openings in May. Another series of workshops is tentatively scheduled for September, depending on weather and air quality.

Broersma needs to hear from any April participants by the end of the week. For more information, see the nonprofit’s website ridingbeyond.org or call Broersma at 541-482-6210.

Reach web editor Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwebeditor.