Heather Matile had decided to stop looking at country properties.
She and her husband, John, both had lifelong dreams of living on a farm. And Heather, who had rescued a horse a few years earlier, wanted to work with the animals to help troubled teens.
But moving wasn’t practical, on a dozen different levels: it would require Heather giving up her secure, full-time job as a teacher in Richmond Hill, Ontario. It would require moving their four kids — now 21, 19, 16 and 12 — out of their familiar home and routines, away from family.
Still, they decided to look at “just one more property.”
You know the rest: that property turned out to be their dream home. Today, Heather, John and their two youngest children share a 60-acre farm in the tiny town of Woodville, Ontario, with five horses, five dogs, four chickens, three cats, and two goats. Heather found a job teaching in nearby Kirkfield, in the Kawartha Lakes region. And she began to pursue her dream of working with horses to help youth with mental-health struggles.
“When we finally moved out here, I kept waiting for that ‘What the heck?’ feeling to kick in, that sense of panic over what we had just done. Were we insane? Did we actually just give up our lives and my secure job to go live on a farm? But that feeling never came.”
Instead, says Heather, “we feel like we came home. I’m home.”
As an equine-assisted learning facilitator, Heather relishes working with teens who have depression, anxiety, autism, and other mental health conditions. The horses help youth build confidence and communications skills. “When you interact with a horse properly, it will listen to you and respond. For kids who feel a sense of worthlessness, who don’t have a lot of control over their lives, who have challenging behaviours, that’s huge. It’s miraculous to see their spirits and their confidence lift as they learn how to interact with the horses. It’s incredibly therapeutic.”
Heather’s empathy for the teens she works with is palpable. “I think I have the ability to look past troubling behaviours and really see the kid underneath who is a good person and wants to act like that good person.”
Part of Heather’s empathy stems from her own, lifelong, struggles with anxiety.
“Mental illness runs in my family. All my life, I thought my anxiety was normal, and I just pushed through it. After my fourth child was born, though, it began to affect my parenting. I got so caught up in my own anxiety that I couldn’t properly address my kids’ needs. I went on medication, and that really helped.”
As did being with horses. “When I’m with my horses, there’s a nonjudgmental feeling. You can be who you are. I can be myself.”
Such coping mechanisms were indispensable when Heather’s oldest daughter developed trichotillomania, an impulse-control disorder that causes people to pull out their hair. “It was scary. I worried about people judging me as a parent. I felt guilty about focusing so much on her and not being able to pay as much attention to our other children.”
Heather and John travelled to international conferences to learn more about the disorder, and built a supportive network for themselves and their daughter. “I’ve grown a lot as a parent and as a person.”
Although Heather loves teaching, she’s looking forward to retiring in a few years and devoting herself to working full-time with kids and horses. For now, she wakes every day knowing she’s exactly where she was meant to be.
“I’ve always been happiest out in nature, with animals,” she says. “I’m so glad we didn’t wait to become part of this community, to act on our dreams. When you’re finally where you’re meant to be, where you’re happiest, everything falls into place because there’s no longing — there’s just living.”