Our equine program for at-risk youth and adults is especially designed to offer a unique opportunity for personal growth to individuals struggling with various behavioral issues. While the program is not psychotherapy or medical treatment, it does have effects that can significantly increase one’s ability to deal with life’s challenges constructively. For many program participants, the first onsets of positive change can begin to become noticeable after the first few sessions.
Throughout the first levels of the equine program, participants work with the horses from the ground and do not ride. Activities include general caretaking of the horses as well as tasks such as navigating obstacle courses together side by side building a solid partnership one step at a time.
During the process of building partnership with one’s equine partner many different scenarios also common to human-to-human relationships arise and become profoundly important teachable moments. To navigate these situations a much more complex skill set in verbal and non-verbal communication is necessary than most youth and even adults have at the beginning of the program. Thus, the ground work with horses over obstacles ranging from simple to highly complex offers a unique opportunity for tremendous personal growth and a discovery of our inner truth ( IT ).
Some of the teachable moments our equine partner allow us to experience bring us in touch with the following:
Observation and listening
Since horses have a different way of expressing their emotions than humans, we need to learn their specific body language signals and put them into context of the species ‘equine’ as well as each horse’s individual style of expression. Horses are highly complex individuals and can vary vastly from one another in type of personality. To be effective with others (horses or humans) we need to embrace this complexity rather than seeking the easier way out by reducing individuals to stereotypes and labels. During our time with the horse we will constantly make an effort to wholeheartedly ‘listen’ to the animal by interpreting his or her body language through which the horse expresses emotions such as relaxations, fear, curiosity, and playfulness.
Body awareness and mindfulness
Horses constantly watch the body language of those around them including ours. As we are working with the horse, we find that moving our hands, arms, core, or legs either unintentionally too fast or too slowly may result in the horse reacting afraid, worried, or otherwise misunderstands our ‘signal’ we didn’t mean to give. As a result, around horses we learn to be mindful of our posture and movement. We develop a better understanding of what our bodies are communicating and attain a more whole sense of self-expression.
Authenticity and self-reflection
Horses are extremely sensitive creatures. When we are not authentically who we portrait to be, in other words, if we wear a mask that differs from our IT (Inner Truth), horses can sense something is amiss. As a result they will often act suspicious or even spooked around a human who is not authentic. Humans can more easily be fooled than horses by a person putting forth a face of bravery when perhaps his IT is one of severe insecurity. As facilitators of this horse program, the animal’s reaction to a person gives us great insight into what might trouble a person the most. Over time, the gentle non-judgmental presence of a horse allows participants to let their IT shine through and become more comfortable with their own authentic self. Acknowledging and embracing one’s own true self is one of the most important steps to realizing and actualizing human potential.
Empathy, self-kindness, and patience
One of the most important ingredients to a healthy self-esteem is the ability to feel worthy of and extend kindness towards oneself. While horses have large bodies and possess unbelievable strength, like humans, they too are not always self-confident. At times a horse may get confused or afraid of an obstacle or something else he senses from the environment that we with our less sensitive senses cannot pick up. When we arrive at such a point, we are presented with a choice. Become frustrated and angry at the uncooperative horse or try to put ourselves into the horses’ shoes to try to view the world from his vantage point in an attempt to understand his feelings and help him resolve his fears in a kind and patient manner. It is through giving this form of kindness to another being that we can begin to allow ourselves to give kindness to ourselves at times when we need it the most. Thus a healthy shift towards self-acceptance and feelings of worthiness start to surface.
Impulse control, self-management, and leadership
Even the most anxious or dominant horses thrive with the right leadership from a human. At the beginning of the program we match participants with horses who have a similar personality type. As students progress and advance in their personal growth, we may at a later point ask them to work with a horse who has a very opposing type of personality. In order to be an effective leader in the horse-human relationship, impulse control is of utmost importance. As leaders we cannot allow our emotions to derail our decision making and govern our behavior as if we were a victim of our own emotions. Instead we learn to incorporate alternate strategies to inevitably arising emotions such as frustration, fear, or euphoria into our communication with the horse. Such new strategies are suggested by and discussed with program facilitators but their effectiveness is immediately critiqued in the most honest and straight forward way possible by the horse himself. Based on the horse’s reaction, a student has the opportunity to accept this feedback without becoming defensive and make necessary adjustments. Horsemanship skills, kindness, and assertion must be carefully balanced or the partnership between horse and human will not deepen. Students usually gain tremendous satisfaction and a sense of success when they can feel the powerful yet peaceful flow of energy between them and their equine partner as a result of their improving leadership skills.
Quieting the mind and stopping obsessive behavioral patterns
Success with horses requires being fully present in the present moment. If we are elsewhere in our thoughts, we only process bits and pieces of what goes on around us and cannot respond adequately to our horses. Thus, our chances for success are limited. However, the mental and physical stimulation horses give us make it easier than many other environments to remain mentally present. The horses in combination with strategies we discuss with students for disempowering, reducing, and stopping negative self-talk and mental struggling can be one of the most liberating effects of our program.
Separating healthy assertion from aggression and bullying
Horses don’t always do what we tell them to do. Program participants find out very quickly that they are dealing with an animal who has his or her very own thought process, moods, and decision making ability. Some of our horses weigh close to 1 ton, others are ‘lighter’ but will still outweigh a human by x5. Thus, bullying a horse into cooperating is a dangerous game to play and, it should got without saying, not tolerated at our sanctuary anyway. So what to do? Assertion is the answer. Our program teaches students the very clear difference between healthy assertion and aggression such as bullying. Armed with this knowledge plus specific horsemanship techniques that are kind, direct, and fair, participants can then attempt to handle situations in which they need to assert themselves while still preserving the quality of the partnership and dignity for both.
The above list of benefits our program can provide a participant with is only a snapshot of all the possibilities. While each person is uniquely different and responds differently to learning situations, working with horses promises much growth potential for people of all ages and backgrounds in an often playful manner and light hearted, peaceful environment.