Horses for the Heart

by Matt Renaud, Youth Advocate at AWARE

Since the beginning of this summer, I have been co-facilitating an equine assisted learning program for some of the kids I work with at AWARE.  This program has been co-facilitated by youth advocates at AWARE in the past before I started working here a year ago, but this summer has been my first experience with the program – and also with horses.

The first time I brought a kid to work with Tonda Bryant, former AWARE advocate and certified EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) instructor, I think I may have been more intimidated by the horses than the kid was.  I’ve always grown up around and been fond of animals, but I’ve never had the opportunity to ride a horse or even be up close to one.  The kid I was working with that day strolled into the paddock as soon as the fence was opened and walked right up to the three horses, so I followed suit.

Co-facilitating this program has made a huge impact on me because I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much about horses that I instantly feel comfortable and confident around them now – to the point where I see them almost as big, friendly dogs.  The real impact the horses have made, though, has been on the kids that I work with.  While Horses for the Heart is not technically equine therapy, it is a therapeutic environment in which people learn how to express their emotions through working with a horse.  The kids I work with at this program have an incredibly wide array of comfort levels with the horses – some of them have gotten in the saddle on the riding horse, Mysty, and some kids have spent each session just hanging out with the horses, sometimes working up the courage to pet a horse and sometimes being content just watching them.

When kids grow up in a home environment where domestic or sexual violence is a regular occurrence, their sense of control and self-confidence can (and often is) stripped away from them.  The Horses for the Heart program offers kids a venue in which they are in control.  The kids learn that each decision they make has an outcome and they learn that they can be assertive without being aggressive.  While some sessions go more smoothly than others, I have watched each of the kids I have worked with throughout the summer gradually grow into more self-aware, self-confident, assertive, understanding and patient human beings.  This program has also helped me to grow into a more patient person.  I’m very goal-driven and it’s sometimes difficult for me to watch a kid want to simply stare at horses for an hour instead of gradually work up to riding them.  Co-facilitating this program has helped to remind me that every kid processes violence and trauma in a totally different way.  Sometimes a kid who spends an hour just staring at a horse gets more out of that time than can probably be put into words.

To get more of a taste of what Equine Assisted Learning is, take a look at this video:

And, this one: