Building Internal Resilience Through Horses Program Delivery Manual will soon be available for therapists, social workers, and equine program facilitators offering skill-based equine-assisted learning. The manual represents the culmination of a four-year research project led by Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre with The Mane Intent and Trent University as program partners and with funding provided by Public Health Agency of Canada. The manual will be available on-line and in print in English and French. For more information, go to www.invitingresilience.ca
Building Internal Resilience Through Horses was developed with an explicit focus on building resilience following trauma. This innovative trauma and violence-informed community-based program has been offered to young women (aged 13 to 18 years) living with interpersonal trauma – e.g., who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, or may be experiencing intimate partner violence, or have experienced child maltreatment. The program is delivered in a small-group format and includes eight weekly equine-assisted learning (EAL) sessions supplemented with five trauma psychoeducation and expressive arts workshops.
This initiative is founded on the expectation that the hands-on EAL experience, combined with expressive arts and trauma-informed psychoeducation, helps young women reduce post-traumatic symptoms, improve mental health, enhance personal coping skills and resiliency resources, while reducing their risk of harm in the future.
The core program curriculum consists of ten weekly 2-hour sessions, including eight equine-assisted learning (EAL) sessions that are book-ended by two expressive arts sessions. This manual also describes three follow-up booster sessions, which were delivered as wellness check-ins at different periods following the completion of the core curriculum (e.g., 1-month, 6-month, 12-month). Each weekly 2-hour session includes 5-8 participants as the ideal group size, with no previous horse experience required.
During the 8-week EAL module, participants engage in a variety of facilitator-guided ground work exercises in partnership with the horse(s) designed to help them increase awareness of, and develop new interpersonal and communication behaviours. The ways in which the horses react to communication, behaviour, and body language provide an opportunity for self-reflection, self-discovery, and shared discussions to identify opportunities for leadership and personal development. All participants are provided with a journal for reflection and personal learning and have the option to share their insights as part of each session.
“I learned that it’s okay to let your emotions go and I learned to connect even without words.” — Participant
Program Key Messages
The key messages focus on increasing participants’ awareness of the impact of trauma and how they can increase resilience with tools and coping strategies that foster a greater sense of mastery, relatedness, and enhanced emotion regulation. The high-level program aims include:
- Understanding personal space and asserting healthy boundaries
- Developing emotional self-awareness and self-regulation
- Learning to set goals and make informed decisions and empowered choices
- Developing positive body image, self-confidence, and self-compassion
- Developing listening, communication, and leadership skills
- Developing personal grounding and mindfulness skills
- Understanding the power of body language
The EAL Approach
The core program curriculum of Building Internal Resilience Through Horses is based on the EAL approach – an experiential learning modality that promotes the development of life skills for educational, professional, and/or personal goals through the human-horse interaction. EAL comprises a series of ground-based activities – no horseback riding is involved – that involve working with horses to learn transferable life skills such as self-esteem, empathy, emotion regulation, relationship building, team work, communication, and leadership.
Equine activities are varied and may include observing herd behaviour at liberty, non-verbal communication, grooming, lunging, in-hand work such as leading, and so on. The emphasis of an EAL approach is not on the activity completion itself, but on reflecting upon the underlying meaning evoked by the process of completing the activity – to create new experiences and knowledge for clients that would help further their personal growth and development.
The EAL approach differs from equine-assisted psychotherapy in that EAL is not designed with the goal of treating diagnosed mental health conditions.
How EAL Works
Each equine activity is a combination of demonstration, hands on exploration, and guided discussion. This gives participants an opportunity to experience, observe, and reflect on how our attitude, behaviour, and intent impact our relationships with others and the results we get.
Through the debriefing about each learning experience with the horse(s), participants have an opportunity to reflect and gain insight into how and why they behave the way they do, and how their actions define themselves and their relationships with others.
The activities with the horses become a metaphor for what is happening in the participants’ life and provides a mirror to reflect back information about their personality style, interpersonal and coping skills, and communication ability.
Working in partnership with horses, participants are encouraged to explore their fears, build trust in themselves and others, and develop their interpersonal skills in a safe, supportive, and non-threatening way away from their daily environment. These activities can stretch people mentally, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. The learning is found in how the discussion is facilitated and how the actions are connected to concepts and behaviours. Ultimately, the activities are intended to help participants build their resiliency resources (emotion regulation, sense of mastery, sense of relatedness) and connect them to greater possibility.
About the Author: Jennifer Garland is the Owner/Program Director of The Mane Intent, offering Health and Wellness Workshops and Individual and Team Effectiveness Coaching. Jennifer’s intent is to bring horses, donkeys and humans together to explore new possibilities and find new meaning in lived experience. Learn more about Jennifer’s corporate experience, lectures, awards and publications, here.
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