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.

A Lesson in Influence from the Lepers

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A Thankless Situation

Some days, I know what Jesus felt when only one of the nine lepers came back to thank him. Actually, his return-to-say-thank-you rate is pretty high, considering. Ten percent came back to say “Thank you for the miracle!”

For 30 years, thousands of students have passed through my classroom doors. Two have come back to thank me. Sure, the circumstances differ greatly. The lepers Jesus healed had a life-or death disease. I work with underage hostages of the educational system.

Christians get all down on the nine lepers who forgot to thank Jesus (Luke 17:11-19). Those ungrateful wretches! All happy about their healing; dancing, singing, shouting, and running straight to their long-lost families! Lost in our censure of the lepers’ lack of basic good manners, we overlook the fact that they each had influence.

Back in the day, no one recovered from leprosy. Once diagnosed, they spent their lives in lonely exile away from family, friends, business colleagues, and society as they knew it. They entered life on the fringe. Everywhere they went, they had to loudly announce the state of their health.

“Unclean! Unclean!”

Unable to work or interact with others, they scavenged for food and shelter with other lepers who had no hope.

Maybe we have the point of the story of the ungrateful lepers all wrong.

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From Leper to Influencer

I get it. Only one percent seemed grateful. The only grateful leper happened to be a Samaritan. Maybe Jesus’ reaction had more to do with his despair about the state of the Jewish nation and their overall forgetfulness about the goodness of God than a lesson in etiquette. But I digress.

Nine lepers seemed ungrateful, but their reentry into Jewish society didn’t go unnoticed. They had influence. Anyone who experiences healing, whether dramatic or mundane, has influence. They each had a story—one they most likely told over and over again as family and friends gathered around to see the miracle for themselves.

I get it. I understand the quirky smile I imagine Jesus had on his face when the Samaritan ran back to praise God. The foreigner set the good example of faith, but the nine mannerless men would change from the outside in.

As they lived with their miracle and sat inside their new skin, they would realize that it wasn’t the physical healing that mattered. Jesus made them feel pure again—from the inside out. Jesus made them feel like somebody who could do something with a redeemed life.

The Statistics of Influence

Some people think teaching seems like a thankless task. But teachers live for the lightbulb moments, the high-fives, and the quiet statement of success. We know our influence lingers on in a sense of confidence and understanding that love shrinks the world.

Above all, we want our kids to know that they matter. Their stories matter, their voices matter, and one day, the way they make other people feel will really matter.

Those two kids who thanked me years later them glossed over the subjects that I taught them. They thanked me for the way I made them feel. They confessed to being difficult, and they thanked me for loving them through their rough exterior. Even if only .001% of my students ever come back and thank me, I’m ok with that statistic.

That quirky smile on my face when my kids run off excited about something they’ve accomplished means I know I’ve done something right. They learned the lesson. They are loved.

Holistic Education

Do you remember the things you loved the most about school during your 1-12th grade years?  I had the privilege of attending school in four different countries for those years.  I attended K-6th in Jamaica with a short five-month stint in Costa Rica during 5th grade, 7-9th grade in Puerto Rico, and the rest in Walla Walla, WA.  My favorite aspect of school was interacting with the other students, especially my close friends.  In Jamaica I was one of two or three Caucasian students in quite a large elementary school at what used to be West Indies College.  I was called “white pig” a couple of times, but I still had a great time because 99 percent of the students were friendly.

Mr. Ojeda visits Jorge, 11th-grade, at Horsemanship.

Mr. Ojeda visits Jorge, 11th-grade, at Horsemanship.

At Holbrook Indian School (HIS), we believe firmly in holistic education.  It is sometimes necessary to dig deeper into concepts and break information down into pieces that students can understand.  And to be honest, we do not always get it right.  As humans, we sometimes spend too much time on the pieces and parts of concepts instead of the whole concept.  One of my jobs as instructional leader at HIS is to ensure that our focus as teachers is balanced.

Thanks to many kind-hearted and generous people like you, we are able to include the following in our holistic repertoire:

  • Individualized math and reading programs.

  • Inquiry-based science lessons.

  • Electives:  Pottery, graphic arts, photography, woodworking, auto mechanics, welding, gardening, horsemanship, and music appreciation.

  • Schoolwide outdoor school.

  • Movement activities:  Athletic program, mountain biking, hiking, and swimming.

Our efforts are paying off.  For the first time in the six and a half years I have been at HIS, all of the senior class members meet the minimum graduation requirements, and some are well above.  This is compared to none or maybe one during my first five years, and 80 percent last school year.  As Christian educators, we should not be surprised by the effectiveness of a holistic education—after all, the education principles that God shares with us in the His Word, clarified by Ellen G. White, are definitely holistic.

As always, thank you so much for your support.  I hope you had an amazing holiday season.  Please continue to keep us in your prayers.

In His Service,

Pedro L. Ojeda