Each week, early adolescent students at Open Sky visit Medicine Horse Center for a day of equine-assisted therapy and other social-emotional activities. In this blog, discover how students spend their time at Medicine Horse and the vital interpersonal and intrapersonal skills they learn while there.
Imagine you are standing beneath the branches of an immense cottonwood tree. Somebody close by asks you to take in your surroundings.
Pay attention to your five senses, they say. What do you see?
What do you hear?
What do you smell?
What do you feel?
What do you taste?
You take a deep breath and look around. You notice a garden of slender day lilies swaying in the breeze, a rainbow of painted rocks lining the path toward them. You hear chimes tinkling in the branches above while a horse whinnies in the distance. The smell of freshly cut hay and hoof-kicked dust wafts through the air. You feel the sunlight shift in lacey patterns across your face and taste the tang of excitement at the back of your throat. You are at Medicine Horse Center. The day is about to begin.
The scene you just imagined is a typical Monday morning for students enrolled in Open Sky’s early adolescent program. The exercise described is called “the five senses.” It is one of several mindfulness techniques staff members at Medicine Horse Center use to help Open Sky students calm their bodies and clear their minds when they visit the facility each week.
Medicine Horse Center is a nonprofit based in Mancos, Colorado that facilitates equine-assisted therapy and other social-emotional activities. Their A.W.A.R.E. Program, which stands for the awareness of actions, words, accountability, respect, and empathy, is thoughtfully designed to provide young people with strategies and skills to stay present, build healthy relationships, and navigate stressful times in their lives.
“Our A.W.A.R.E. Program is based in self-exploration, self-reflection, and discovery,” said Lynne Howarth, executive director of Medicine Horse Center. “Through a series of experiential activities designed to help youth regulate their emotions in stressful times, students are encouraged to become aware of their energy and impact on others while building trust within themselves.”
Early adolescents visiting Medicine Horse Center each week are accompanied by their primary therapist and Open Sky field guides. Upon arriving, the group gathers and checks in with Medicine Horse Center’s facilitators to discuss the day’s plan. Each visit to Medicine Horse is centered around a theme, such as accountability, core beliefs, or identity, and each activity is structured for students to further explore that theme. After introducing the theme, the group plays a few fun games to welcome anyone new and help everyone feel more comfortable. Then, facilitators prepare the students for interacting with the horses.
Horses are both prey and herd animals, which is part of what makes them such good companions and therapeutic partners. Because they need to be alert to the threat of predators, horses are very attuned to their bodies and environment and reflect the energy they feel around them. When students are with the horses, they experience how their actions impact others and learn to build relationships based on mutual consent and understanding. They become aware of their own feelings and energy and learn to keep themselves calm and present to develop trust with the horses.
“Our horses help students build trust and connection with another being,” said Zoe Coleman, a facilitator at Medicine Horse Center. “It is beautiful to watch each student find a unique, honest, and intimate connection to our horses, in which they are seen and valued just as they are.”
Horses are also herd animals. Everything from their emotional to their physical security depends on having a community around them, and their relationships become especially important during times of stress. Highly intuitive animals, horses act as nonjudgmental partners who react honestly and clearly to those around them.
“The horses provide space for students to work through strong feelings, make and learn from mistakes, and trust themselves,” said Julia Lehr, clinical therapist for early adolescent girls at Open Sky. “The students are learning lessons that they can then apply to their lives within the Open Sky team and with their families back home.”
To help students ground and center themselves before meeting the horses, facilitators guide the group through a mindfulness exercise, such as “the five senses.” Other exercises include finding a meditative state through rhythm and movement. During a recent visit, students formed a drum circle. Medicine Horse Center provides drums and sticks, but students may use almost anything as an instrument: an empty water bottle filled with pebbles, two rocks struck together, or their own two hands. Guided by facilitators, they experiment with the calming effect rhythm can have on the brain. Drumming also provides students with a sense of interpersonal synchrony, in which each individual contributes to the collective success of the group. Once everyone feels regulated and attuned, it’s time to move to the paddock.
The early adolescent students separate into small groups, each supervised by staff members from both Medicine Horse and Open Sky, and spread out among the different horses’ enclosures. Medicine Horse Center has a total of six horses. There’s Bronco, a miniature Shetland pony whose small size and big heart make him the perfect starting point for anybody new to horses. Chitsa and Goldie are both Haflinger mares with long, blonde manes. Chitsa’s loyalty makes her an excellent companion, while Goldie’s keen intuition helps build trusting bonds with students.
Indi, Medicine Horse’s oldest horse at 20 years old, is seldom far from gregarious Quinn. Sometimes, Quinn must gently remind Indi of her boundaries, which provides an opportunity for students to discuss the importance of respecting others. Finally, there’s Disco. At 16.1 hands high, he is Medicine Horse Center’s largest horse. His friendly personality and emotional awareness make him ideally suited for this work.
As students enter each area, they stand quietly, inviting the horses to spend time with them. Like humans, horses have different moods week to week; some days they feel more interested in socializing than others. By patiently waiting for the horses to approach them, students ask for the horses’ consent before interacting. It is an important moment for learning about respect and empathy.
More often than not, the horses amble toward the students. They bump and nuzzle shoulders, sniff outstretched hands, and nicker softly. Students pet flanks, brush manes, scratch ears, or simply watch the horses as facilitators quietly ask students what they think each behavior means. For example, what does a drooping mouth and cocked leg indicate? The horse is very relaxed. Keep scratching! What about perked ears and an elevated head? The horse is focusing on something interesting or unfamiliar in its vicinity. Learning to understand the nonverbal communication horses use to express themselves helps students become more aware of their own body language and how they show up in the world.
During their most recent Medicine Horse visit, students progressed to doing partner activities with the horses. In one activity, a group of three students worked together to halter a horse. Only one person could talk and only two could move. The horses and students needed to rely on their connection, trust, and energy to work together to accomplish the challenging task.
“Afterward, all the students put their hands on the horse’s side, took a deep breath, and were really present with him,” said Julia. “I’ve been able to reference that moment since. I ask my students how they can do that for themselves. When they’re experiencing anxiety and depression, how can they create a space where they’re just sitting and breathing and honoring their moment?”
Once students are finished spending time with the horses, they move back to the cool shade of the garden area to reflect on the day’s events and engage in an expressive arts activity. The activities vary week to week: one week it might be making clay pots, the next, writing in handmade journals. Whether painting rocks, drawing pictures, or creating a song, each activity at Medicine Horse is imbued with intention and helps students process their emotions, practice new skills, and safely explore themselves and their relationships.
As the day winds down, everyone gathers for one last activity. Standing in a circle around a rock spiral that radiates from a birdhouse, students, guides, therapists, and facilitators hold two things in their hands: a stone and a slip of paper on which they’ve written an intention. One by one, they each share a parting thought, such as a word that describes how they’re feeling in that moment or a shout-out to a team member who helped them that day. Following the path of the rock spiral, they walk to the birdhouse and slip their piece of paper inside. They remind themselves of their intention – stay present, try new things, nurture confidence, express gratitude – and carry it with them until it is time to meet once more at Medicine Horse.