Five energetic teenage boys, ages 13-17, bounced into the retreat center at Harmony Stables just outside of Bismarck, ND. They talked over each other, each one talking a little louder to be heard above the others. Cherie Sanstead, owner and operator of the stable, exuded peace but it was lost in the nervous energy bouncing off and around the boys. She focused her attention on each boy, one at a time, and then said it was time to see the horses.
The transformation was almost immediate when the boys stepped into the arena. As the horses, Bee and Spot, walked towards them, the boys slowed their steps, calmed their bodies, and lowered their voices. Soon their full attention was focused on the horses. In a matter of minutes, the boys, who are all in the psychiatric residential treatment program at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, went from chaos to calm.
In the company of horses
Horses are highly sensitive and have a unique ability to read human emotions. Sometimes they provide comfort to a child who is anxious or depressed. Other times they mirror the child's emotions by backing away or becoming skittish if the child is feeling anxious or angry. This cues the child to identify their emotions, and to discover what they might be doing to make the horse feel unsafe.
In the Ranch Horse Program, a therapist and/or equine specialist helps children make the initial connection between their feelings and the horse's response, but most children soon learn to notice the horse's reactions and figure it out themselves. They learn to focus on their breathing or practice other calming strategies to decrease the intensity of their emotions, so they can reconnect with the horse.
One Ranch child said, "I learned that you have to be very quiet around horses because they can sense your feelings. If you're not calm around them, they can get nervous."
Regulating and controlling their emotions is difficult for most Ranch kids. Once they discover ways to be calm around their horses, they can use those skills in other parts of their lives.
Christian, one of the boys who participates in the Fargo Horse Program at Jubilee Stables, gets frustrated easily, but when he is with his horse, Kuna, he is relaxed.
"Taking direction has been a struggle for Christian, but when he is at the stable, he takes it well," said Nikki McCarl, Certified Occupational Therapy Assistant (COTA). "Spending time with Kuna brings out his tender side. Just a lot of things he struggles with normally in life seem to come naturally to him here. I could see the difference the first night we brought him to the stable."
The "horse effect" spills over into Christian's life outside the stable. He said Kuna has taught him he "can be around other people," and that's something that has been hard for him.
"He has more confidence, a sense of humor, and is more aware of being considerate," McCarl said. "Even on the ride out here, he let [the other boy] ride in the front."
That may not sound like a big deal, but it's a big change from a few months ago.
The arena is also a great place for kids to practice forming relationships. Most of our residents come to the Ranch with complex trauma resulting from previous relationships and how they've been treated.
Amber Benham, Horse Program Coordinator at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, Minot, said, "Our kids don't trust people and tend to not want to make connections. Taking the risk to develop a connection or relationship with a horse is a very important component of their treatment."
Because they are herd animals, horses are constantly looking to build bonds and attachments, but they are not usually quick to trust. Bonding with a horse gives Ranch kids the unique opportunity to practice relationships based on trust. Tey can apply what they learn to relationships with their families and peers.
As one Ranch child said, "I think all kids in treatment should be allowed to ride horses. Horses can tell when you are upset just like people can tell. I had to work through my frustration while grooming and riding my horse. If you are feeling down, you should ride a horse and focus on the wind on your face."
Healing trauma through movement
In addition to helping kids find ways to bring stillness to their bodies, Occupational Therapists and COTAs watch how kids sit in the saddle. Abuse and/or neglect often stunts the development of gross motor skills that allow children to sit upright, stand, walk, run, lift, throw, and kick. Horseback riding helps build core strength, balance, coordination, and leg strength, which all aid in the development of those gross motor skills.
Sanstead said trauma is stored in the body and the brain of both horses and humans. "Horses and humans have to find their way out of trauma the same way," she said. "A lot of times it starts with movement, finding rhythm and regularity. Horses help provide that, with that real basic movement of the limbic system."
One young girl came to the Ranch with poor balance and poor posture, along with no social skills or ability to connect with adults or her peers. When she first rode, she sat hunched over on the horse, almost like she was trying to disappear. After a few months of riding, she had developed the confidence and gross motor skills she needed to sit up straight as she trotted her horse around the arena.
The activities kids do with the horses depends on the needs of each child and may include riding groups, behavioral health therapy, and/or occupational therapy. Horse therapy is much less about the riding than it is about grooming the horse, making them feel comfortable, and treating them with compassion. In fact, when new kids come to the arena, it's sometimes several weeks before they ride. Some kids never do ride—they are satisfied just being with their horse and learning what it feels like to be calm and centered.
The activities kids do with the horses are sometimes a way to make sense of their life journeys. The guided activities give them a chance to share their stories in an unthreatening environment. For instance, in one session Sanstead asked the kids to build an obstacle course that explains life at the Ranch.
"They put together the most amazing elaborate works of art and then intricately describe the process," Sanstead said. "They say, 'Well, that's discharge over there. You can take the easy route and go around the hard stuff, but if you go that way, which is a little bit harder, you'll have a lot more success.' Then they take their horses through the course and it's amazing to watch. Sometimes the horses give them a really hard time and they get frustrated, but we help them work through that too."
Horse Programs on all three campuses
Horses have grazed the pastures at Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch since the first six boys moved into the donated farm in Tolley, ND. The horses came with the farm. When the Minot campus was built, a Quonset by the river served as a barn for two horses brought from Tolley for the summer. The Ranch now owns 22 horses—some donated, some purchased.
In Bismarck, the Ranch partners with Harmony Stables where Sanstead provides horse camps, lessons, and equine learning programs to at-risk youth and families through her nonprofit organization, Heart of the Prarie. Sanstead didn't grow up with horses, but when she started exploring equine learning, she was fascinated by how much you could learn from horses and how everything you do with horses can be tied back to the rest of your life.
The arrangement is similar in Fargo where the Ranch partners with Jubilee Stables. Girls go one night and boys the next. Riding instructor Hannah Swenson co-leads the 8-week sessions with a Ranch COTA. Week one starts with learning to groom their horses. They move onto more advanced grooming techniques, basic leading, round penning and ground-work exercises, and by Week five, they are ready to ride. They finish out the eight weeks learning to turn, stop, and trot.
While the format of the Horse Program is different on every campus, each provides a foundation for the real work of the horses—bonding with the kids, teaching them how to deal with difficult emotions, building body strength, and strengthening motor skills.
And while the focus is all about the kids, there is no need to worry about the horses. Benham and her staff, which includes an assistant and two residents employed at the bar, take very good care of them.
"Our horses are pretty spoiled," Benham said. "In addition to feeding them seven days a week and scheduling regular vet and farrier visits, we bring in acupuncturists and chiropractors, and get their teeth cleaned regularly. I've taken massage classes, so I can give them massages. We also have different stretching exercises we do with them, depending on their needs. And they get loved on by the kids—what more could you ask for than that?"