Horse therapy helps bridge learning gap for students

On a small farm in Oasis, equine-assited learning is being offered to Greater Trail kids facing challenges such as ADHD and autism.

“He’s not going to look back if you don’t,” he said. “They’re the most forgiving creatures God ever made.”

Twenty years ago, author Nicholas Evans wrote those words in his best-selling novel called ‘The Horse Whisperer,’ which is a moving story about the deep connection between a girl and her horse.

Fast forward to present day and add boys to the mix, and a modern nuance is brought to those words that now characterize a local equine program that seeks to empower Greater Trail youth through the spirit of the animal.

Twice a week on a small farm in Oasis, an equine-assisted learning (EAL) program is being offered to the area’s youngest members who face ongoing challenges as they grow into the teenaged years and adulthood.

The gentle nature of horses is the ideal medium to support children with matters related to behaviour and impulse control, such as attention deficit disorder (ADHD), autism and associated spectrum disorders (ASD), substance abuse, and many other mental health related conditions.

Little Oasis Equine Matters is home to an eight-week program that first launched a few years ago and has since added more horses to the team while continuing to develop life skills and individual skills training alongside three certified facilitators and behaviour consultant Rebecca Oliver.

“I refer my clients to EAL to maintain and generalize the skills they have learned one-on-one and in small groups,” explained Oliver. “We focus on teaching social, communication, cognitive and life skills and emotional regulation.”

The EAL group targets these skills, she said, so it’s a great fit to refer clients to the program.

For one Trail girl, Little Oasis ranch has been a refuge to help her manage ADHD symptomatology.

The eight-year old is part of the fall session after completing the advanced EAL program in the spring. But this time around, the concepts are coming easier, says her father.

She came armed with knowledge about subjects like body language, feelings, appropriate behaviour and non-verbal communication.

“I still think it is the neatest thing when she uses these tools to get a horse to cooperate through a matrix of difficult personal challenges and obstacle courses,” he continued.

“(She) continues to make progress learning to manage her ADHD. It’s a remarkably simple statement that I am glad to be able to say and brings great hope to the future.”

There’s no horseback riding involved in the Little Oasis program, rather children eight years and older are side-by-side with the horse, to take guidance with an EAL facilitator to develop coping strategies that encourage positive change and improve self esteem.

Psychotherapy using horses targets every aspect that an individual with a disability could potentially need; fine motor skills, large motor skills/large muscle groups, communication and other behavioural skills.

Sessions are goal oriented and include leading the horse to a designated area, putting a halter on the horse, though sometimes there isn’t any touching at all.

Another eager participant is a 10-year old boy who was only recently diagnosed with autism.

He also completed the EAL spring session and was more than ready to work with the horses again this fall.

There’s something magical about horses, said his mother, adding that the peaceful energy of EAL has helped her son develop social interaction and other life skills.

Each week, a different learning tool is part of the hour-long session. She recalled one day, when everyone had to be quiet and learn to read body language as a form of communication rather than speaking.

“I saw a change in him right away,” she said. “I know we still have a long way to go but for him to be able to understand that the horses are there to help is quite amazing.”

A new addition to the team is Spy, a magnificent bay horse that is the ten-year old’s favourite.

He is a 14-year old Peruvian Paso gelding that responds well to the youngsters when they are working as a team and is readily identifiable by his dark brown body colour and black flowing mane that one facilitator likens to “Fabio.”

Spy is one of six horses in the EAL program that last year added a suicide prevention and grieving and loss group.

Using animals as therapy is not a new phenomenon – in 600 BC the Greeks documented using horses’ therapeutic value for people with incurable diseases.

Little Oasis calls it “Using Horse Sense” because with strong leadership the animals develop respect and trust for their handlers and are willing to follow.

To have a program in the area where kids get outside and have the chance to work hands on with horses is incredible, added the girl’s father.

“These are the programs the kids in our communities need to be healthy today and to have healthy futures.”

Programs are also available for any youth who seeks to develop skills to deal with matters such as bullying by encouraging positive change and targeting esteem and confidence.

For information, visit littleoasisequine.com or call 368.2002.

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