Healing With Horses: The Value of Connection
Experiencing mental illness as a child or youth can be an unsteadying experience, and the care they need extends far beyond the walls of the hospital. Community involvement and connection are important parts of recovery, which is where incredible community-centred programs like Propel come in.
Grand River Hospital’s Propel program connects patients with community organizations where they can build healthy, rewarding relationships, learn new skills and connect with like-minded individuals, all while regaining their confidence and self-esteem. One of Propel’s longest-standing community partners is Conestogo River Horseback Adventures, a local stable that provides the opportunity to be in a fun, safe environment with horses.
For the last six years, Conestogo River Horseback Adventures and owner Tatyanna van Lenthe have been working with Grand River Hospital to offer programming to youth receiving outpatient mental health care. Animals can sometimes feel easier to connect with than people, and as certified Equine Assisted Learning coaches, Tatyanna and her team can offer support that is very compatible with the goals of the Propel program, helping participants learn valuable skills like emotional awareness, trust, empathy, social skills, problem-solving skills and responsibility.
What is Equine Assisted Learning? Sergent Sunman explains what it’s all about from a horse’s point of view:
When someone experiences a mental illness, they might feel isolated, be self conscious or have trouble putting their feelings into words, especially during their formative childhood and teenage years. But when working with horses, many of those barriers disappear.
“With animals, you don’t have to have the right words to be able to have that feeling [of connection],” Tatyanna explained.
That’s not the only way spending time with horses can benefit someone’s mental health either. Horses are great teachers: they require your full attention, helping participants learn to be present. Their sensitivity to human emotions also means they will actually mirror these feelings, providing feedback that helps people learn about themselves.
Some find that working with horses also teaches them to be more empathetic, not just towards others, but towards themselves. When a participant witnesses a much loved four-legged friend do something they would criticize themselves for, like engage in behaviours motivated by anxiety – which for horses are vices like cribbing or weaving – they experience empathy, which in turn helps them learn to be more accepting of their own experiences and mental health journey.
Additionally, because horses don’t pose any judgement, they can be a calming presence for a young person who is struggling and act as a source of stability, emotional support and unconditional love. Caring for them can also give participants a sense of purpose and responsibility.
All of these types of experiences open doors for children and teens receiving mental health care to develop skills and self-confidence that can translate to other aspects of their lives, helping them become more comfortable, confident and well adjusted.
“Just this week, I had a parent that said to me [that] … their child is coming out of their shell and not afraid to show their true self,” Tatyanna said when asked about the program’s impact on the youth from Propel who take part Conestogo River Horseback Adventures.
Programming with horses is just one of the many types of activities Propel offers to children and adolescents receiving mental health care. Others include sports, music lessons, art classes and more. So, whether it’s learning the mental discipline of boxing, patiently building a relationship with a horse, being able to climb to the top of a challenging rock climbing wall or painting a picture that beautifully illustrates complex emotions, Propel seeks to offer these kinds of opportunities to kids throughout the Waterloo Region to help them imagine a brighter, fuller future.
Learn more about the Propel program and all the ways Grand River Kids helps local youth by visiting GrandRiverKids.ca.