Spring Valley Road: a place for healing
By Darren Lum
Published Aug. 16, 2018
Down a picturesque country road, surrounded by sprawling hills and farms, bordered by a diverse wealth of trees, located just outside of Minden’s downtown, is the beginning of a dream built upon a passion to help.Led by Jennifer Semach and her husband, Walkabout Farm has found a permanent home. The therapeutic riding academy brings together horses (and hopefully other animals) and the public for a chance to improve mental health and development. This facility draws those who want to help and those that need help.
It’s taken more than a year but Semach couldn’t be happier with the newly acquired 27-acre property on Spring Valley Road.
The best part about this permanent location acquired earlier this summer, Semach said, is it gives her total control and enables her to operate full time.
“Those things are huge, huge,” she said. “This is a more welcoming environment. People can drop in. It’s more approachable. I’m in control, which is wonderful.”
Another benefit of this permanent location is how it is ideally situated on a dead end road, minimizing traffic volume to encourage regular horse rides to where the McCutcheon family lives (with two boys who have Angelman Syndrome). The boys love the visits and the family appreciates the opportunity for social interaction.
Currently, there is one six-acre paddock and a round ring, which was recently added.
None of this would have been possible if it weren’t for Minden resident Royce Miller, who approached her with the miraculous proposition late last summer.
“He said, ‘I don’t know if you could use this property, but if you can I would sell it to you and only you,’” she said. “That was really nice of him to do that. He didn’t have to do it. He just wanted to do that. He just wanted to give us that space because we were desperately looking close to town. It had to be close to town so our people could get here themselves.”
The location also provides plenty of wild sustenance for her horses, who can feed on the foliage. It can sustain them all year. She called it an incredible feature in a county of “rock and trees.”
Semach met Miller through his wife Donna Jennings years before. Jennings died of cancer several years ago. With his daughter Sam involved with horses growing up, he had an interest in the Walkabout Farm and was aware of their attempt to find a permanent home from their Facebook posts, Semach said.
Open to adults and children, the farm provides the public with an opportunity to establish a bond with resident horses Valentino, Coconut, Jasper, Gracie and Chewbacca. Semach believes there is a power through the bonds developed between people and horses, who are in tune with human emotions.
The programming also offers life skills training for people with developmental delays through their help around the farm, which also includes a lesson on farm management. Horse riding offers physical benefits to riders, particularly those with disabilities such as multiple sclerosis.
Semach said providing the programming for free is a gift to the community from her and her husband.
“Many of our programs are just covered by my husband and I. That’s our gift to the community,” she said.
This farm also offers a unique benefit for anyone suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD.
“It’s all about emotional support and using the animals for opening up doors for some of the issues that they’re dealing with,” she said.
One of the horses, Chewbacca, was a rescue with a sad back story. The nine-year-old horse is the largest of the group and was purchased at the Whispering Valley Equine Sanctuary, located near Renfrew. He and six other horses were pulled from a slaughterhouse. He endured abuse and has a deformed nose from a previously embedded halter. Although the largest horse at Walkabout Farm welcomes the touch of a child, his fear of adults continues. He is the poster-horse for Walkabout and shows how anyone can move forward from a traumatic experience.
“I thought, even if I can’t use him in the program, I can talk to kids about moving forward and past trauma. He’s wonderful. He’s like riding a couch,” she said. “He’s pretty amazing to ride and he’s a good boy.”
As the interview was being conducted, Tom Prentice was delivering a load of sand for the newly installed round ring. As of writing, the round ring was going to be dedicated to long-time volunteer, Jen Casey. Casey died from cancer several weeks ago. She not only provided hours of help to the farm, but was very vocal about getting people to donate money in her name to fund the round ring. It’s a 50-foot enclosed area, employing a post and wood fencing. There is a plan it will include shelter seating area for loved ones to watch participants.
There is a hope to add a five-acre and a two-acre paddock. This will not just enable more programming to run concurrently, but would allow them to add boarding horses in order to offset costs to operate programming. Ideally, the future plans also include the construction of an eight stall barn. The size of the barn will be determined largely by the money available.
There have been 40 participants, not including youth outreach, who have experienced what Semach wants everyone to feel when around the horses. This number doesn’t even include the many students who help and can also get volunteer hours toward graduation.
One teenager may not be getting volunteering hours since she is home-schooled, but she is gaining something far more valuable. Peace of mind.
Maxi, who has anxiety and depression, believes working with the horses (like her favourite Coconut) the past three weeks has enabled her to direct her energy to the wellbeing of the horses rather than listen to the negativity that swirls in her mind.
There is an openness the 16-year-old has adopted when it comes to her mental health challenges since working with the horses the past two weeks, each day for an hour at a time.
“It’s helped me not be ashamed of it,” she said, adding this opportunity is amazing.
Semach developed a love for nature and desire to help animals at a young age from her father, John Martin, and her grandparents, who owned a large farm in Penetanguishene.
“If it wasn’t for my dad and my grandparents and the upbringing that I was blessed with none of this would have come together. They really taught me a love for nature and farm work. My grandparents were always welcoming everybody to come and sit and talk. They had exchange students from all over the world staying at the farm. I just loved how they were able to connect with anybody through the farm. It was a real draw for people to come spend time,” she said.
She adds her grandparents opened their farm and their hearts, hosting many exchange students from around the world. The experience at that farm had a lasting impact on Semach.
She wishes her father could have lived to see her dream come true. He had hoped to see her realize her dream, but died from pancreatic cancer in September.
Earlier this month, over the long weekend, Semach hosted a tree planting ceremony in honour of her father, which included family from Colorado and England.
“Planting the tree and having his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews come from all over world to help me plant that tree in his honour, that’s going to be pretty incredible.”
The weeping willow was close to 15 feet high and was the same type of tree she and he planted near the ravine by his house 30 years ago. “It was always our tree,” she said.
A John Martin memorial fund has been launched.
Semach has worked for the YWCA, at a residential treatment centre for kids with mental illness, for the OPP and as a volunteer with the Minden Hills fire department.
Semach wants to build a barn, but obtaining a loan from the bank is proving to be a challenge.
Rather than dwell on what isn’t happening, she is looking on the bright side of things and said getting the property is the start and a key to her dream.
“That’s the most important thing so we can build a shelter for the winter for the horses and hopefully go from there and get what we need as we go along, but we’re just happy to be here and starting. We have got a lot of kids that need us and they’re coming out every day. We’re really busy and loving every second of it,” she said.
With files from The Minden Times