Amy Lalonde can’t fully explain why being with her horse Odin is so therapeutic but she has a compelling theory.
“I think there is something more than just the relationship,” said Lalonde. “I think there is something biochemical going on.”
Lalonde was suffering from crippling panic attacks, one of the symptoms of a post-traumatic stress disorder she developed after years of child abuse. The disorder drove her to thoughts of suicide and made her a prisoner in her own home – her own mind.
“Up to that point I was having panic attacks three times a day,” said Lalonde. “I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without having them.”
Keeping a job was next to impossible.
“I’ve been at my job now a year and before that I couldn’t hold a job for longer than six months,” she said. “I kept getting triggered and if there was any kind of bullying, my health would just go downhill. I had no resilience.”
Her condition was getting worse and all seemed hopeless until she read about researchers who were using horses to treat victims of trauma. Something about the research intrigued her and two years ago she bought a young Shetland pony-miniature horse cross that she named Odin.
“The first big impact I had with Odin was when he fell asleep with his head in my lap,” she said. “After that day I had a three-day break in panic attacks and it has just gotten better from there. I started having them about once a week and now, I don’t hardly have them at all. As long as I am spending time with him, I continue to get better.”
Odin’s presence was clearly helping with her PTSD but she was far from cured.
“There was a period where a bunch of stuff came up and I couldn’t spend time with him and I started to get sick again,” she said. “Now I am never away from him for more than a day.”
Lalonde was on the road to recovery and things were getting back to normal when in May of 2017 she got a visit from bylaw officers. They told her they were responding to complaints from neighbours and that existing bylaws didn’t allow her to keep a horse inside city limits. The idea of living without Odin was unthinkable for Lalonde.
“I would have had to move,” she said. “I couldn’t live without him. If I don’t get time with him, I get sick again and I can’t go back to that. It was not a life.”
The story attracted a lot of media attention and raised awareness about antiquated laws that don’t accommodate people with therapy animals.
“It was brutal,” said Lalonde. “Originally what they said is – they had the bylaw on the books that you could have a horse in the city for up to 14 days for activities like circuses and festivals and that kind of stuff.”
She was given a temporary exemption while they considered amendments to the bylaw.
Controversy arose again when Odin was released from his enclosure in Lalonde’s backyard and was found running along the nearby train tracks in the early morning of Dec 18, 2017. The incident led to a warning from the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
“That’s why we have that padlock on the gate now,” said Lalonde. “There are a lot of people in the bush behind there on the other side of the train tracks that get high and drink and I just think someone made a poor choice – did something stupid.”
On Valentine’s Day 2018, after nearly a year of uncertainty Lalonde got word from the City that Odin could stay.
The whole thing has been a learning experience and therefore Odin is aptly named.
“I picked it because Odin in mythology was a teacher of humanity,” she said. “That’s kind of the relationship I wanted with him – to learn from him and work with him. I am focusing right now on school. I went back to university to, hopefully, become a psychologist and help people.”
She believes new research into the role of pheromones for treating trauma may provide some answers about the healing effect Odin has had on her.
“Ants communicate through pheromones so I don’t think it is that much of a stretch to think there is something else going on there,” she said. “I’ve got almost a thousand research studies downloaded on to my computer so I can look into that over the summer and try to find if there is something in the research that can support it.”
Whatever the reason there is little doubt that Odin has given her a new lease on life.
“The way I am now I can function,” she said. “I still have panic attacks if I push myself but I finally feel like an actual person again and I can’t let that go.”