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Filmmakers reveal how horses can help with mental health and suicide loss

‘Through the Shadowlands’ documentary the work of a Gabriola Island couple
Anastasia Hirst takes a dip with wild horses in Arizona in 2017 while filming ‘Equus: Healing Through Horses,’ which was later renamed to ‘Through the Shadowlands.’ The documentary will be screened at VIU’s Malaspina Theatre on Saturday, April 27. (Submitted photo)

When two Gabriola Island filmmakers set out to explore the world of equine therapy, they had no idea how the story would reshape itself into one of personal loss and grief.

Through the Shadowlands was created by Anastasia Hirst and John Fulton, who first started the project roughly seven years ago with the general intention of examining the benefits of how horses can help mental health. Hirst, who was then working as an equine facilitated wellness practitioner, would tell Fulton about the amazing sessions she observed.

“Horses and nature are so good for healing things like trauma and anxiety and depression because it helps people come back into their bodies in a safe way,” she said.

Fulton added that he believes horses allow people to “be in the present moment, when they’re not in a trauma response and thinking about things that have happened.”

When the duo realized how under-served the topic was, they set out across North America to create ‘Equus: Healing Through Horses.’

“The original plan [was] we were not going to be in front of the camera. We wanted to interview leaders in the field and [tell] other people’s stories,” Hirst said. “We drove across Canada and the States … And while we were filming, my dad died by suicide.”

Following the death, the project was put on hold. Hirst and Fulton got married, had children, and carried on.

In 2022, however, the duo was awarded a Telus StoryHive grant and decided they were finally ready to finish the project.

Before her father’s death, while the project was still known as ‘Equus: Healing Through Horses,’ Hirst and Fulton had been contacted by a woman in Wisconsin who had been a suicide-loss survivor following the death of one of her sons. She had participated in different forms of counselling, only to realize what helped her get back into the world again was when the family bought a horse. The animal allowed her to do something every day and get back into the community.

“As things changed, after Anastasia’s dad took his life, we realized that our two stories were intrinsically linked and we had learned so much from Helen and their surviving son Peter that it really helped us shape the story that we wanted to tell in its evolution into Through the Shadowlands,” Fulton said.

With a new fixed focus for the documentary, Hirst and Fulton decided to directly address the stigma associated with mental health and suicide loss. Hirst recalled that following her father’s death, her family would “call it what it was” and be honest about what happened. In doing so, she noticed how others would often admit they, too, survived a suicide loss but referred to it vaguely, seemingly “sweeping it under the rug.”

Another important aspect to the project was to localize it even further, filming in Nanaimo and even holding grief ceremonies on Gabriola Island.

“It was important for us to show how important it is to heal in community instead of grieving in isolation … Especially after suicide loss,” Hirst said.

Fulton agreed, and added that many people told them how impactful the ceremony was and how “something had changed in them.”

An intention with Through the Shadowlands was to not be weighed down by heavy facts and figures. The filmmakers aimed to have the project be more experiential and community-focused rather than strictly educational. Fulton said that stark information can take viewers out of the actual film and into their own head-space and not focus on the story.

The documentary does, however, use a single stat in the film to depict the ripple effect suicide can have on a community. As noted by research by the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, in Canada, 12 deaths by suicide will leave up to 120 people in a state of bereavement, and beyond those people, up to 120 additional people will also be affected by the death.

Through the Shadowlands had its first private screening on Gabriola Island on April 13. As part of the Telus StoryHive grant, the project will be broadcast on the Telus Optik TV channel on a yet-to-be-announced date.

Hirst and Fulton said they have plans to take the film to festivals when they can, and would ideally like to make it available online. Those interested can stayed posted on the film’s Facebook and Instagram profiles.

READ ALSO: Gabriola couple filming documentary series on equine therapy

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