Healing with Horses

Dakota, our paint horse.

Dakota, our paint horse.

Dakota is one of our thirteen horses. Just like many of our students, Dakota has a story that has led her to distrust humans and live out of a place of fear. Fred Bruce, the founder and teacher of our horsemanship program, cquired the painted horse from a previous owner who lived on the Navajo reservation. By the looks of it, Dakota was mistreated. With time, patience, and hard work, Dakota has made progress. She is beginning to trust those who work with her and she is helping students do the same.

Our students come here with an array of challenges. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and trust and abandonment issues seem to be the norm. Learning and functioning in an academic setting can be difficult for students who have been through so much in their short lives. Holbrook Indian School (HIS) uses a multidisciplinary approach to give students the tools and skills they need to face the challenges that confront them. Working with horses is one of the ways students can heal, learn, and grow.

For the past eight and a half years, students have had the opportunity to take horsemanship classes. If you were to come on campus in the afternoon, you would see students riding around in the ring or grooming the horses in the barn. Some students love working with the horses, while others are timid. Yet, all seem to benefit from their time around these 1,000 pound creatures.

Working with horses fosters social and emotional healing and growth. HIS introduced a new horsemanship class called Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), led by task-force worker Amy Loredo. This class goes beyond teaching students how to ride. Amy works with students one-on-one and focuses on teaching them the relational aspect of working with horses. She educates them on how appropriate body language can help gain the horse's trust.

Roetisha, 10th-grade, works with Dakota during her lesson.

Roetisha, 10th-grade, works with Dakota during her lesson.

Amy explains, “Horses are prey animals and therefore they are in tune with their emotions and the emotions of others.”

Equine Facilitated Learning involves groundwork with the horses including grooming, exercises and taking care of the horses. Students also learn how to lead a “join up” - a method of bonding with a horse through body language and position. The horse is asked to follow the fence of the round pen until asked to approach the trainer. This takes patience, but the horse learns to listen and respect the silent commands of the trainer.

One of the students Amy is teaching how to lead a join up is Rotiesha, 10th-grade. After demonstrating the commands and body language, Amy switched places with Rotiesha to let her practice.

During this time, Amy draws out life lessons about God and relationships, “The horse must learn to follow. We must learn to be good leaders.”

By the end of Rotiesha’s lesson, Dakota was following her.  Rotiesha remarked, “I like the respect and trust that I have with Dakota.”

Our horse instructors explain the story of creation in Genesis to their students. When God created the earth, He gave humans dominion over all the creatures (Genesis 1:26). Fred Bruce relays to students in his class, “By God giving us dominion over them, He gave us the authority to use them, but not to abuse them.” In turn, students are learning concepts such as boundaries, teamwork, and cooperation. Horses, like Dakota, are helping us provide a healing and safe place for our students to thrive.