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Meet Diane Chaffee of Hope Held by a Horse in Southwest

Today we’d like to introduce you to Diane Chaffee.

Diane, before we jump into specific questions about your practice, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I worked as a Surgical Physician Assistant for 25 years, after starting as a Registered Nurse. One of the fields I was involved with was assisting general surgeons operating on women with breast cancer, in removing breasts, as well as plastic surgeons, in reconstructing them. So one would think that I had all the information I needed already when I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007…on Christmas Eve. This happened four months after getting married! I was not immune to the feelings of almost every woman diagnosed with breast cancer- I was shocked, scared and devastated.

During my treatment and recovery, I was directed to a wonderful Nurse Practitioner who told me about a program that I would be interested in. It was for women with breast cancer working with horses. Unfortunately, the programs I found did not provide therapy for breast cancer at all. Instead, they were all training programs for people who wanted to become equine therapists.

I had a horse of my own, Skye. During this time, I would go to see her as often as I could. We always had a very strong bond. We competed in long-distance riding and relied on each other for each other’s safety. She started behaving differently when I would go to see her. Which I did often because she always lifted my spirit. She nurtured me in a way no one else could. I did not understand all that was happening, but I truly believe she helped me heal physically, as well as emotionally.

My experience with her made me want to offer that to other women going thru this life-changing experience. I serendipitously met Kerry Borcherding, a psychotherapist and equine-facilitated therapist, at an event and we talked about my interest in offering a program to women diagnosed with breast cancer. It took years for it to come together – but I knew that I wanted to provide the opportunity for women to be around horses, experience what the horses have to offer, and allow them to feel whole again. I wanted them to experience the same healing power of a horse that I had.

So after recruiting an outstanding team of trained counselors, I started my program for women with breast cancer to be able to feel the healing energy and spirit of horses. It’s called HOPE HELD BY A HORSE. We were the only program in the country at the time that provides equine therapy solely for women with breast cancer. And we may still be.

We provide emotional support thru the power of horses to six women every month. We have been doing this for over six years, free of charge. We have been able to sustain our program entirely on individual donations and obtained a grant last year to cover eight women.

As survivors, women often feel like their bodies have betrayed them, making them want to disconnect from the neck down. Working with horses helps reconnect the brain and the heart; they help women re-center and refocus. Horses are not thinking about the past or future but the present – this helps women to feel supported and empowered thru the spiritual connection with the horses. This allows them to continue and thrive, even if they are uncertain about how long they will live. The feedback we get from these women has been overwhelmingly positive and life-changing for many of them!

The facilitators give up valuable weekends to keep doing this every month, with minimal compensation. One weekend, at the end of our program, I asked a few of them what keeps bringing them back. They expressed a feeling of giving, growth, the satisfaction of seeing immediate success. What struck me most was the comment that thru this program, they had also learned how to live.

And, it has been life-changing for me! Through my journey of breast cancer, I have been able to find a silver lining. I feel very fortunate and I feel that I have found my purpose out of all of this. I would have never thought that my life would take this direction, but I am blessed that it did. Not only do I value my life more. I value my relationship with my husband, family and friends, as well as my pets. I have learned about the incredible spirit horses offer us. And I have been able to help women in need. What a gift!

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We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Yes, there have been many challenges! We are constantly in search of donations to keep our programs free for these women during a very challenging time in their lives. Fortunately, we have been able to do this thru individual donations, but fundraising is not easy!

We also work to keep a number of qualified counselors on our staff. Their backgrounds are varied- from being psychotherapists, equine-facilitated psychotherapists, social workers, ministers, animal communicators, life coaches, to reiki specialists. And they all must have experience with horses.

We also have to have a number of horses who want to do this kind of work, are safe and can connect spiritually. This also involves having a facility that can provide the horses, arenas, and indoor spaces needed to put on a program.

Finally, qualified and enthusiastic board members and volunteers are always difficult to find and cultivate! But in spite of it all, just being in a program with the ladies and horses always makes it all worth it! And running into previous participants and having them give me a big hug and thank you- even years later. Many tell me they still have their pictures of their horse displayed.

We’d love to hear more about your practice.
Horses are finally being recognized as valuable therapeutic partners in treating many kinds of emotional and psychological problems. Research has shown their ability to not only impact humans emotionally and spiritually but also physically. There are several universities studying horses to learn more about their capabilities.

Many programs are sprouting up to provide all kinds of interactions with horses for various issues. Many other programs also charge for their services. They also combine them with other multiple needs.

We are committed and defined by our focus on women with breast cancer, at any time in their journeys. This makes us very specialized in the unique problems breast cancer presents to women and their families. We are still the only program known in Colorado to be 100% focused on breast cancer. We are a 501c3 with minimal administrative costs and no salaried positions. And we have always been able to offer our programs for free.

What were you like growing up?
Growing up, I was the classic lost middle child between two boys. I was and still am very close to both my brothers. I was a good student, but I was quiet and afraid to raise my hand in class. I did manage to get into a little trouble. Thankfully, nothing major.

I always loved animals and wanted to become a veterinarian. I worked with small animal vets after school and on weekends. I really wanted a horse, but my mother was afraid of them, so I hardly ever got to ride one! I grew up in Albuquerque. Our family water skied and snow skied. I had a good stable family. After I graduated from high school, I left for college at CSU.

This work has changed me and given me a voice. The horses have indeed worked their magic on me, transforming me into a committed advocate for both horses and breast cancer survivors. No one from my childhood would have ever believed I’d be speaking in front of groups about anything!

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Image Credit:
Danielle Good
Monica Humble

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