Horses have long been known to be therapeutic animals. Alaqua has created Equine Facilitated Learning to promote hands-on education to promote growth and development.
Alaqua Animal Refuge has a new program that is helping those who need it with their life skills. It is called Equine Facilitated Learning.
The ability to learn from animals has always been present, but people don’t always pay attention. Dogs, for instance, love their owners no matter what, pointed out Equine Specialist Bonnie Blackmon, but horses are more honest and live in the now.
“They don’t lie,” she said. “Horses are natural partners to teach us about ourselves and help us develop interactive skills for navigating life. They are herd animals that naturally want to interact and easily engage students with their willingness to respond and cooperate. They are a natural partner to teach us about ourselves and help us develop interactive skills for navigating life.”
Developing the skills to effectively communicate with a horse builds self confidence, empathy, and trust. Visually, horses are large animals and therefore easily represent some of life’s bigger challenges and obstacles that each of us face in our personal life and social situations.
Further, horses are prey animals whose survival depends on the ability to be very sensitive to both non-verbal communication and another’s intent, even when it is subconscious. The feedback they give in response to our body language is valuable information as we learn about how we communicate. They do not have ulterior motives when they interact. Their non-judgmental presence creates an emotionally safe learning environment, Blackmon said.
Horses have survived for thousands of years because they create an effective social hierarchy with clear rules and responsibilities ensuring safety and harmony within the herd. Observing horses as they interact is a metaphor for society, providing opportunities to explore social situations and how to successfully navigate them, she said.
Equine Facilitated Learning is a hands-on educational program that uses interaction between horses and humans for self discovery. It promotes personal growth and the development of positive social and life skills. Each equine interaction is framed to help students learn and grow.
According to data indicating that one in 68 people have autism, the need for learning social and daily living activity skills for that set of individuals alone is great.
“I have a special-needs child, which gave me the background,” said Blackmon. “Some children just need self awareness of what actions such as getting overly excited might cause. They may not understand why someone does not want to be their friend. When they see that becoming overly excited and waving their arms causes the horse to run away, but once they calm down the horse comes over, they understand better. It’s a self-learning technique. Dogs love you no matter what, but a horse reacts to you’re actions.”
The equine program serves a variety of special needs such as autism, ADD, ADHD, and other developmental delays. There are also specific curriculums for bullying and literacy programs, whether in the spectrum of developmental delays or not. The plan is to encompass all age groups and issues within the programs.
“Needs vary,” she noted. “Sometimes I want a horse that is calm and sometimes not. It’s very experiential.”
Blackmon takes a child’s individualized education program and then formulates a plan with a goal.
Students actively participate in setting their program curriculum, challenging them to assess progress based on their personal goals and objectives.
Participants are afforded the opportunity to capture concepts to be learned, practice their new skills and reflect on how they might apply what they have learned to their own social interactions and life experiences.
Each week participants explore a new concept: trust, body language, managing risk and boundaries through the eyes of their horse. As comfort and confidence levels grow, students implement new activities, building their self confidence and skill levels.
As they interact and work with the horse, they observe the behaviors and responses, develop skills, discuss and reflect.
The program is one of Alaqua’s community outreach programs, created, as many are, to address a challenge.
“Due to the fact that we work so many animal cruelty cases and end up with horses from unknown backgrounds and ages, we often end up with many that are old and/or have special needs,” said Alaqua founder Laurie Hood. “Horses that are healthy are expensive, but some of the ones that we end up with are even more so. These horses are incredibly gentle. They will probably never be adopted. So we tried to think what can we use these horses for and benefits people? We started looking at the program and it seemed the right thing to do on so many levels.”
The program’s future is exciting as there will be a covered horse arena on Alaqua’s new property that will allow private sessions for abused children and PTSD patients.
“We had the idea a few years ago and took time to look at programs,” said Hood. “We knew we had the horses, interest, and capability to make it work. One of the most memorable moments was a lady came out who had a young autistic son who never smiled. The first time they let him lead the horse, he had this huge smile across his face. There was not a dry eye. Having the courage to do that was special.”
In the future, the plan is to introduce equine facilitated psychotherapy. This program could include issues such as trauma, addiction, grief, eating disorders and PTSD, as well as others who would benefit from social, emotional, behavioral and mental health needs.
Classes are by donation for one on one outings and small groups.