If you had told me 10 years ago that I would be writing a blog on equine assisted learning, I would have laughed. I was not a horse person, nor was I seeking to become one. However, as they say, I did not find the horse, the horse found me!
What better way to get involved with something new than to experience it firsthand? As most of you know, I have been a psychotherapist for many years. I have done countless hours of personal therapy in order to be a safe therapist and not have my personal issues cloud a clients’. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a very effective therapeutic model that I have used as a therapist. Often we intellectually understand our patterns, our coping mechanisms and the impact on our emotional reactions and our relationships. But it usually takes a while for our behavior to follow our intellectual understanding. When combining cognitive behavioral learning with equine facilitated learning, behavioral change happens quicker. This definitely got my attention. Not only did change take place in a timely manner, it also took place at the cellular level.
The day I found myself in a round pen with the horse, I realized I didn’t need to do anything for someone in order to be connected. In other words, out of sight did not mean out of mind. This “aha” moment highlighted that my significance was not based on what I could do for someone, but instead, was more about who I was as a person. The penny dropped from my intellect to my body and my feelings changed. Body, mind and spirit had come together. This is the ultimate goal for any kind of learning; therapeutic, academic or behavioral. Everything works together and an internal flow exists.
This congruence is what working with horses provides. A non-verbal connection, which invites the person to use their own non-verbal skills such as energy level, approach, physical sensations, and emotional responses. More experiential than academic, the shift that occurs can be difficult to explain. But, it is indeed significant.
There is a substantial amount of research being conducted and collected on the therapeutic value of dogs, cats, chickens, goats and of course, horses. A concern arises as we evaluate the results of our increasing dependence on technology, which identifies the problems caused by the lack of time spent outdoors in nature. Richard Louvs’ book, The Last Child in the Woods, is about what he calls the “Nature Deficit Disorder.” Simply put, this is when human beings, especially children, do not spend enough time outside exploring, playing and using their imaginations. So much of our socialization begins with our peers and playing all of the fantastical games we can create as we play. The socialization process is not just about our behavior and treatment of others. It is also about the process that takes place to internalize our beliefs and to understand why we choose to behave the way we do. As a child matures, they gradually internalize their values and morals and use them to make decisions when adults are not available or no longer necessary to provide the moral compass for behavior. Therefore, the animal/nature connection is vital to becoming a calm, confident and connected adult.
As my work with the horses evolved and showed itself not only being insightful, I also found it to be highly effective for children as well as adults. I designed a program for using the horse/person connection to teach social/emotional skills titled, Partnering with Horses to Teach Social/Emotional Skills. It was an exciting day when one of our grandparents caught wind of it and offered to underwrite this program. I am thankful SAA saw the potential and allowed me the opportunity to pilot it with our current 6th grade class. This is a first for SAA, and actually a first for private schools in San Antonio!
The boys participated in three individual days over a three-month period, October, December and January. The initial day was spent learning how horses communicate, how we can best communicate with the horses, how to groom and care for a horse, what a boundary looks like and how it feels to set [one] and hold it for the safety of the individual and the horse. Each subsequent day offered ground exercises that increased in challenge and proficiency. And on the final day, boys were working with the horses at liberty, on their own with facilitators available for support only.
Several of our faculty and administrators joined the trained facilitators to support the boys as they processed what they were learning. Sixth grade teacher, Carol Sobey, was the faculty member who spent the most amount of time with all of the boys. She commented that after the very first day with the horses as they boarded the bus to return to the school, “there was a completely different feel among the boys and they were all calmly talking to each other.” By the end of the three-month period, the boys were working together, with “no put-downs,” encouraging each other instead. Being more inclusive and helpful.
Maturity and the ability to improve is a lifelong journey. This was a significant opportunity that introduced many of the boys to a unique way of learning how to connect and interact with nature, the horses, themselves and with each other.
SAA’s Communication team created a documentary video of the experiences the boys had with the horses and each other. See how many of the social/emotional skills you can identify in the work the boys were doing. Below, I have listed a few of the social/emotional skills that were being encouraged as the boys “played with the horses.”
What the boys had to say when asked what they learned from the horses:
“No one leadership position is more important than another.”
“You do some things yourself and more with a team.”
“Effective communication is not all verbal.”
“Don’t give up. Persevere.”
“Look for more than one way to do something.”
“Figure out what the needs of others are and work with that.”
“Be patient with myself and others.”
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
“It’s OK to say “No”, and set boundaries.”
“I am calm with the horses.”
These boys have everything they need within themselves to be successful adult men. May they have the opportunities they need to ask difficult questions and listen to the answers with faith, hope and love.
Ms. Moore entered employment at SAA with the challenge of creating the first counseling department in the history of SAA. That was 23 years ago. Today, the counseling department includes a learning specialist and is a vibrant center for learning and problem solving.
In addition to Ms. Moore's positions at SAA, she also is a private practitioner for individuals and families. She has served the San Antonio community for over 35 years with her counseling services, speaking and writing.