Equine Learning At Fire Mountain
Horses are unique in their ability to read people on an emotional level. They interact in ways that challenge people to come to terms with deep personal issues. Those two abilities allow horses to be amazing assets in a therapeutic environment. At Fire Mountain each of our residents spends time working with the horses as a part of the overall therapeutic program. They learn valuable skills and get an opportunity to experience the dynamic healing that horses bring about.
Horses Are Natural Healers And Teachers
Horses are present, authentic, and incredibly sensitive to our thoughts, feelings, and energy. They can show us where we are lying to ourselves and others, where we are scared of making a real connection, and where we are disconnected from ourselves and our power. At Fire Mountain, we help kids become aware of these patterns, and the horse offers them an immediate opportunity to practice new behaviours and work through the blocks.
What Horses Look For In People
The magic of horses is that they look for characteristics in people that are highly valued by people as well. Horses look for leadership and partnership (relationship) in others. That means trustworthiness. For horses, trustworthiness is consistency, boundaries, assertiveness, gentleness, clear communication (body language and energy), and for us to be present.
Most importantly, horses respond to fearlessness, and congruence (inner states and outer states are the same – we own what’s on the inside without shame or apology). This is an important concept for troubled teens. Inner turmoil leads to self self-recrimination. Horses really don’t get it when we get down on ourselves and judge ourselves. That confuses and angers them. That confusion and anger is a clue for residents and our therapists of deeper issues that need to be addressed.
We need to be connected to ourselves to able to connect with them.
Horses Can Teach Proper Boundaries
Let us say that a girl has had a history of sexual abuse, or sexual experiences that have crossed her boundaries. As a consequence, she isn’t able to assert herself with friends and boys, and has poor peer refusal skills for drugs and drinking. A horse can sense energetically that this person has weak boundaries, and, depending on the horse, will step into her space, put his face on hers, walk through her, nip at her, or push her.
This behaviour will probably be interpreted as affectionate by the girl, who sees any attention, even if it’s violent or crosses her boundaries, as better than nothing. This lack of awareness about her boundaries puts her in danger with the horse, just as it does with humans. She doesn’t interpret this as a problem because internally she craves closeness and isn’t in touch with how this puts her in unhealthy situations.
We will bring this to her awareness by asking questions about her experience of being this close to the horse, asking her to feel into her body, and then teach her how to ground, use her tools (halters, arms, energy, voice) to make a space around her that is more healthy.
The girl has an internal sense of what is comfortable and safe like we all do, but she needs to get in touch with it. When she has practised creating proper boundaries with the horse using her new tools, we will process the sensations and emotions that come up. When she has determined what is a safe distance between her and the horse, and the respectful ways for the horse to enter her space, different emotions will come to the surface. She might feel loneliness because she prefers closeness, even if it’s violating her boundaries, or she will feel mean for saying “no” or “pushing” the horse away.
As we work on breathing techniques, grounding, centering, and feeling what it’s like to say no, she will begin to feel empowered. This can take several sessions or it can take 10 minutes. Once she learns she can be alone, choose when to make contact, and set boundaries energetically, she can make better, healthier choices because she has practised with the horse, and received respect and healthy relationship as a result.
Horses Help Us Overcome Anger and Fear
Let’s say a boy struggles with anger. The horses act up around him, threaten him, and aren’t likely to respond to him. He knows a lot about horses, and so it’s a mystery why they won’t respond to his skills. However, the horses are not responding to his knowledge, they are responding to his emotional state.
To bring about an understanding of what is happening, we slow it down, we take it really carefully, breathe, and watch carefully. When the horse he’s with acts up, he might freezes and looks to us for help. He is scared. We ask him to breathe and slow down. We offer him support, he breathes, he feels the tension in his body, and acknowledges that he is scared. The horse calms down.
Whenever the boy shows up as angry, he knows now that he is scared. The horses connect to him when he acknowledges his fear. The point isn’t to get over his fear, but to own it. When the boy owns his fear, the inner and outer states are the same and the horses relax. And the boy can also relax, enjoy the experience and come to terms with his own anger and fear. He is also empowered to try this in other moments when he is angry, and to change his response in the same way.
Equine Activities For Residents
Residents spend an hour in the equine learning program each week, they help with filling water troughs twice a week, and will be feeding twice a day on a rotation schedule.
In the equine learning program, the residents get to confront their issues in a safe relationship with a non-human in a non-verbal way. They get to make friends with very open-hearted creatures, and they get to learn how to take care of horses. They receive an “Equine Skills” certificate when they graduate, which means that if they want to keep working with horses, they have a horse “resume” of the skills they have practised and mastered.
In the equine learning program, we don’t ride the horses at all. Currently, we do “groundwork” which is primarily skills such as leading, moving with energy, interacting, grooming, and just plain hanging out. Obstacle courses, round pen exercises, and bareback mounted work are in the works Being face to face with a horse is a much more equal relationship than being on their backs.
Essential skills learned:
- Determining equine emotional responses
We are currently developing the program towards more care and free time in the coming weeks.
At Fire Mountain, horses are a part of the healing environment. They live on the property and are treated as part of the family. They are also and important part of the therapeutic teen treatment program. Their unique perspective and understanding of people make them an invaluable assets in the healing process.