Equine Therapy at Columbus Girls Academy
Many studies and research topics provide proof of the benefits horsemanship and equine therapy programs provide for troubled girls. It gives the girls confidence and a sense of power over a huge animal, in a world where they may otherwise feel weak or powerless. It expands the borders of communication and perspective, allowing learning about oneself and the horse.
Equine therapy is about creating and cultivating a bond between the girl and a horse, not just having fun horseback riding. At its root, horsemanship is all about the girl and horse working together to complete a goal or task. To accomplish this, each girl must learn to be calm, assertive, and communicative. The girl must communicate clearly with her equine partner, using both verbal and nonverbal communication techniques.
The way horses read and react to the girl’s body language is a startlingly accurate method of daily feedback for the girl; if her attitude is not right, the horse will not respond well to her. Only calm assertive communication from the girl will result in the horse beginning to trust and respect her leadership.
Our equine therapy program at CGA focuses on helping students gain knowledge and grow within themselves. Through working with horses, our students learn composure, poise, patience, and problem solving. The horses chosen for the program help to facilitate the lessons. Some students use their equine partner as a sounding board — telling them their thoughts, troubles, or simply talking to them as a friend. The horse is a friend who passes absolutely zero judgement and listens patiently. While working on these communications skills, the students also work on physical skills such as elements of horse safety, care, and riding.
What exactly does that look like? We take a methodical approach, beginning with horse safety and care. The students begin with classes focused on learning how to safely be around and handle horses. They learn what it takes to provide basic care for a horse; such as feeding, watering, and veterinary care. This slow introduction gives even timid students time to observe and digest the material before being asked to take charge of the equine they are partnered with. The slow introduction also allows the student to learn and complete relatively easy tasks and gain confidence quickly.
After building a solid foundation focused on safety, we then progress through the program. As part of learning about horse care, each class begins with the students grooming their horse. This simple start to class gives each student a chance to form a bond with their equine partner while having a chance to relax, and just breathe. The methodical movement of grooming the horse facilitates steady breathing and the repetitive movement acts as an outlet for stress.
Each class session the students learn something new. Whether its knot tying, posture, how to saddle a horse, or skills in the saddle. Throughout the course the students learn skills that they can translate into their everyday life. We teach skills, then present obstacles for the students and their equine partner to conquer. Some obstacles are more literal than others. While there are students that have internal obstacles they work toward over coming, in class we set up activities where the students learn to work with their equine partner to complete physical obstacle courses. The obstacle courses challenge the students to maneuver their horse over, around, or through an array of terrain and teaching props. This activity gives them a goal to work toward, with a finish line they can see.
With each class, communication skills are developed and refined. Horses are masters of subtle communication, a wrinkle of the nose, or a flick of an ear is all they need to do to send a strong message to one another. Horses are also great at reading and responding to human body language. Working with horses is a great way to improve student’s human to human communication. So much of human communication is nonverbal, working with horses helps our students to be more aware of the signals they are sending with their body language. Standing tall, chin and eyes up, and picking up their feet when they walk with the horses. All these seemingly simple things send a clear message to the horse, I am strong. I am capable of being a leader; from there we work on leadership skills.
Students learn to present themselves with calm, assertive, authority when asking a horse to complete a task. Walking or riding with their head up, looking where they are going so they can effectively lead the horse. Moving with a purpose that demands respect from their equine partner, and learning that leadership comes from within, and not from physical force. Physical force and intimidation will not result in a respectful or meaningful partnership and makes working with a horse very difficult. Horses are prey animals. Meaning in adverse situations they naturally see only two options: Fight or Flight. When you gain a horse’s trust and respect you can prove yourself a worthy leader, a leader they will look to for guidance and assurance. We teach the students the concepts of leadership and have them complete activities with their equine partner that will help establish this hierarchy.
With trust and respect established in both the student and the horse, the students transition to learning basic horseback riding. There aren’t many things that can emulate the feeling of joy and freedom horseback riding brings. Having the knowledge, and with knowledge, the power to control a mighty and majestic animal, such as the horse increases confidence. The partnership created between horse and rider also creates a greater sense of empathy in the students. They can see a horse with great size and strength show humility, and a degree of sensitivity that is immensely in-depth.
CGA’S equine program is proving to be very beneficial to our students. End of course surveys are given to the students, and the results have been phenomenal. When the students were asked if taking part in the horsemanship program improved their confidence over 91% of the students reported some degree of improvement in their confidence, and 100% of students reported that they learned something through taking the horsemanship course and that made them feel good about themselves.
We strive to give our students a safe, meaningful and memorable experience; teaching them lessons through horsemanship that they can apply to their lives. Our horsemanship program is uniquely our own. Taking the lessons, and techniques we believe work the best and custom fitting the program to each group of students. Small class sizes ensure each student is given the instruction and attention needed to successfully complete the horsemanship program. The students taking part in our horsemanship program must learn to look at situations from other perspectives such as that of the horse and use calm yet assertive leadership to guide the horse.
We look forward to continuing to watch the students personal progression as they complete the horsemanship program and learn to implement the skills learned into daily life.