Horses are gifted with sensitivity, honesty, and an incredible amount of grace. They have a way of touching the hearts of even the most troubled souls. The students they serve at Shepherds Hill Academy in Martin, Georgia, through Equine Relationship Therapy come from all over the world and all over the map with behavioral and mental health issues.
These students have been greatly impacted by horses during this therapy. Horses provide opportunities for people to learn and practice patience, self-awareness, boundaries, communication skills, self-control, attitude, trust, coping skills, critical thinking, follow-through, leadership, mindfulness, faith, empathy, mercy, coordination and more.
Horses are so much like people! They have family units made up of biological and non-biological children. There is family drama and shifting of positions of authority. There is social drama and an unspoken code of conduct among them. They can have similar experiences with addictions (cribbing/sucking wind), eating disorders (founder from overgrazing), and disturbances passed down genetically. Some have PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) from any number of abuses or neglect. Many feel the pressure to perform and can overwork themselves in order to meet the high standards of their owners. They suffer depression and anxiety due to those things previously mentioned and also due to the loss of loved ones and companions through reasons they can’t control (being sold/moved often, or sickness).
Does any of this sound familiar? God has used horses in so many ways to serve man since his creation. They have provided for us as a source of food, labor, transportation and critical instruments of war. They have more recently provided physical and occupational therapy, and over the last 30 years, they have become more and more valuable in the field of mental and behavioral health.
Let me share one of the many true stories I have witnessed involving horses helping humans in this way. Skye was a young teen when her mom died of complications due to severe obesity. She had been taking care of her mom’s needs and did not attend school since the 3rd grade after being bullied. She was 15 when she was enrolled by her adoptive parents (her maternal grandparents) to Shepherds Hill Academy (SHA).
Her childhood was a mix of unstable environments that led to sexual abuse and neglect from family members. She was diagnosed with Major Depression, ADHD, and ODD. By the time she began working with the horses at SHA she was seemingly very tough and became very focused on her own self-preservation and trusted no one. She was angry, defiant, argumentative, disrespectful and dishonest among other things. She was stuck in that state of self-preservation and hiding her great fear of rejection.
Skye worked with three different horses over the two-and-a-half years she was at SHA. Jack was her first horse, who was very good at appeasing people rather than being real with them. She says that working with him “helped her to recognize her own appeasing passive aggressive ways” and that she learned “ways to be more decided and consistent” while working on accomplishing goals with him.
After her first year at SHA, she went back home to try living with her adoptive parents again. After only four months, she returned to SHA due to struggles relating to her peers at her new school and not getting along with her parents as well as they all hoped. She realized she still had more to learn at SHA. When she came back, the equine staff asked her to pick a new horse to work with to broaden her experience and learn even more. We can always count on God to set the students up with the right horses! She ended up with a horse named Buddy who, like Skye, had been severely starved and neglected as a young horse. “Buddy was blunt and direct and I sugar coated things. He taught me to be direct and honest towards him and others. By being straightforward, I became more confident,” Skye explained.
Over the years, Buddy had worked his way to the top of the herd and is now a dependable, trusted herd leader. Skye had to treat him with respect to gain his respect back. Skye was inspired by his story and progress. After about nine months, Skye started working with another horse in order to allow another student to learn from Buddy. This new horse, named Rocky, was very strong in his own confidence and imposed himself on people he felt threatened by. This was something that Skye related to as well as she had not yet learned how to balance her own new confidence with the inevitable times of insecurity she would feel around others. “Rocky taught me a lot about the balance of self-confidence—leading and not lording over others,” she reported.
Skye has graduated from high school at SHA this past May and is now in boot camp for the US Navy. She has made tremendous progress and gives much of the healing credit to her father God the experiential therapy she had with horses. This is just one of many amazing success stories of how horses continue to help humans all over the world. Horses are truly God’s gift to mankind in a way that keeps on giving. As they wait for technology to catch up, they provide an experiential and more intrinsic learning method that has a lasting impact.