Equine Assisted Activities for Peace and Reflection

Well, the first PATH Intl Virtual Conference ran a tight ship! Sessions started and ended at random times, such as 12:39 – 1:36, and they stuck to it. The schedule was so tightly packed and the presentations so filled with information that yesterday I didn’t have enough time between sessions to organize and post anything else after that first post. I’d say that’s a good conference! I was very impressed with the digital platform they used and the ability to chat with everyone in a message box while viewing, as more good information was shared between participants, which I have included in my notes along with ideas from the original presentations. In short, I was pleased with the conference and would highly recommend attending it to anyone who is slightly computer savvy, especially if you can’t make it to an international or regional conference in person.

This post is a summary of activities from two sessions, “How to Develop a Grief and Loss Program” by Jenna Turcotte, and “Look UP Life Coaching” by Mary Pat Paulson, AND from our own veterans program, because the activities are very similar to those we used with veterans when we had an instructor incorporating EAL (Equine Assisted Learning). Enjoy!

EQUINE ACTIVITIES FOR PEACE & SELF-REFLECTION

These activities are good for programs such as:

  • Grief
  • Veterans
  • Veterans & their families
  • Gold Star families (of a lost veteran)
  • PTSD
  • Life Coaching
  • And the like – anyone needing the peaceful setting of the barn and time to think

The focus of these activities is:

  • To create a safe place for individuals to work with horses and receive their therapeutic benefits
  • To offer opportunities for peacefulness and self-reflection
  • NOT to counsel or advise, because as PATH Intl Instructors that’s not what we’re certified to do. If you are a mental health practitioner or include one in the program, you may be able to incorporate more processing into the activities, but do not go beyond your training. In light of that:
    • Set clear expectations about what you do and don’t do (therapy, counseling, instruction, etc.).
    • Have mental health professional you can call if needed.
    • Stay within the limits of what you’re comfortable and qualified to do – this differs for each person.
    • Make sure that in each participant’s intake you discuss that this is not counseling and ask whether they are at a place emotionally that they can deal with things on their own without guidance, should they come up.
    • Our program put together a list of therapists in the area in case anyone needed one, and invited those therapists to the barn to see our program in case any of their clients participated and things came up.

Welcome Activities

Chair Yoga

Start each session with a 15 minute chair circle yoga outside the barn. Anyone can do chair yoga. Jenna’s program had a certified yoga teacher lead it, incorporating concepts from Mindful Connection by Nicole Birkholzer. The point is for the participants to check in with their body and emotions, and leave the junk from the day behind before they enter the barn. Physically locating the circle outside in the beautiful nature helped the participants relax and center themselves, while being beside the barn was an important visual for the practice of leaving what you are dealing with outside the barn. The hope was that this exercise would allow them to be fully present with the horses and not emotionally dump on them. The program kept revisiting these concepts throughout the activities. She said this exercise was essential for creating a good experience with the program and horses, and they did it at the start of every session.

Herd Image Check In

Find an image of a horse herd running that includes lots of different types of horses and behaviors. You can pull it up on a laptop, project it onto a screen, or use a large printed poster image on the wall. Ask each person to go around and say which horse describes where they are at today and why. You yourself start it off – you can say “I’m the horse at the front of the herd today, ready to go.” Or “I’m the second in command, whose ears are back listening around.” This activity gives great insight into where your participants are at and if you need to make any changes or accommodations accordingly. We did this every week at the start of each session and it was interesting how much more open people are about where they are at when they had this image to facilitate it.

Horse Intro Activities

Horse Introductions

Explain how to greet a horse – instead of just going up to them, put your hand out, then take the hand away, and see if they approach you again. Discuss how to have respectful interactions with horses and ask horses to be respectful of you. Do this before letting the participants interact or observe the horses.

Herd Observation

Release several horses in the arena or take participants out to the pasture. Give the group 5-10 minutes to observe the horse interactions. Ask them what they noticed about the horse herd behavior and interactions between horses. Take the opportunity to talk about horse behavior and how that related to human interactions and safety with horses. Ask them which horse/s they feel they are the most like. This may bring up some insights into personalities and help you assign riders to horses. But be aware that if you end up assigning them to different horses, they may be disappointed. We ended up using a different group of horses for this activity than the ones the participants rode, to avoid this.

Horse Observation

This activity takes place when the horses are all in their stalls. Jenna’s barn did it during feed time, and took all the nameplates off the horses’ stalls so no associations would be made. They gave the participants time to explore the barn and observe each horse, letting them wander and be drawn to certain horses. Then they regrouped and talked about what they noticed, which horses they were drawn to, about horse behavior, and any questions about what they saw. In the following weeks they went straight to being with their own horse and observing them, carrying over what they learned about horse behavior.

Choose a Horse

This works best with 1 rider or a small group. Introduce the rider to all the horses, telling them a little about each and their history. Ask the rider, or watch to see, if they gravitate toward a particular horse, and let them use that horse for the activities. You may want to narrow it down politely for them – for example, if they are a beginner and you only have 4 beginner horses, tell them that out of all these horses there are 4 I’m thinking of for you, and which out of those 4 they gravitate toward.

Safety Talk

Discuss horse safety and correct handling. The grief group reviewed this every week, it’s that important!

Horse Handling Activities

Haltering (Invite Horse Participation)

Explain the correct and unaggressive way to halter a horse. Let the participants go into their horses’ stalls and invite the horses to put their heads in the halters, respecting the horses if they choose not to. I believe the example given was: groom the horses in the stalls, then offer to halter, and if they don’t choose to be haltered, continue grooming or discover what the horse would like to do; or this was done before grooming and if the horse didn’t want to be haltered, then spend time with them in the stall.

Grooming

Explain the grooming tools and how to use them, then let the participants groom their horses. However, while they groom, have them focus more on their interaction with the horse and the horse’s responses, what he is saying, more than actually cleaning or the order of tools. Ask questions like, What brush do you think he likes the most? Any special itchy spots? What is he saying to you when he does that? Have very horse knowledgeable volunteers not just overseeing but working with them, so that the clients, volunteers, and instructors all work together.

Leading & Quiet Time In The Arena

Teach the participants how to lead, then give them quiet time in the arena with the option to lead, groom, breathe with the horse, or just be with the horse. One time they played music softly in the background (Enya) and participants walked in rhythm to the music.

Hand Grazing Outside

Lead the horse outside and let them graze in the grass or an outdoor obstacle course. Let the participant decide what to do – practice leading, do the obstacles, or just graze. The grief program said this was their favorite activity and most participants spent the time just touching their horses and having quiet conversations with them in a safe place.

Boundaries & Moving the Horse

Explain the boundaries of the horse, safe zones, and your space vs. his space. Explain the areas of the horse and how to move him (step over the front feet, haunches, etc.). Discuss using your energy and intention to be a good leader. Have the participants practice and experiment with this.

Obstacle Course

Set up an obstacle course and let the participants lead their horses over the obstacles. Focus on what the horse is saying and their own body language. This is a very interesting activity because often the participants project their own feelings onto the horse (“I think he’s kind of scared” when the horse is falling asleep) however be careful how much you engage those feelings if you are not a counselor. Our rule was to practice active listening (be present, repeat back to them what they’re saying, etc.) but not ask deeper questions; if the participant wanted to delve deeper, they should bring it up with their therapist. I also gently guided them toward correctly interpreting the horse’s behavior.

Obstacle Course with Labels

Set up an obstacle course and let the participants name the obstacles. Write the names on a white board or pieces of paper attached to the obstacles. Have them lead the horse through the obstacles, read the labels as they go to each one, and discuss afterward. For example, one obstacle was named “My New Goal” and they later discussed why she couldn’t (get her horse past) her new goal.

Set Up an Obstacle Course

Have the participants set up their own obstacle course to lead their horses through. Make sure the obstacles are all familiar with the horses. If it’s not, gently guide the participants toward a similar but more appropriate construction.

Obstacles from afar

Set up a “chute” down one side of the arena – two ropes for the horse to walk between, or two pole lines – and within it set up a bunch of obstacles. The participant must lead the horse through the obstacle course, keeping the horse within the chute, but without the leader going into the chute (stepping over the rope/poles). Perhaps discuss how to control a horse with a long loose lead rope. You can have the participants figure out how to do this on their own, or give them instruction how to do it. From the EAL standpoint it’s about what the participant is learning and processing more than how to do it right, but as an instructor I wanted to give them the tools they needed to complete the course.

Move With The Horse

Have leaders hold the participants’ horses for them at the halt, while the participants stand facing the horse’s side with one hand on the shoulder and one on the barrel. Ask the participants to close their eyes or use a blindfold, and take a few minutes to let feel their horse’s breathing, lean in and smell the horse, and eventually match the horse’s breath to their own (this may or may not be possible since the horse at rest takes much fewer breaths than the human at rest!). Then ask the participants to follow their horses’ movements, keeping their eyes closed, trusting that the horse will not step on them, and tuning in to feeling their horse. Silently signal the horse’s leader to step the horse slowly forward a few steps, backward, or turn, making sure it’s not too fast for the participant to follow. End with giving them more time to be with the horse, then gently say they can open their eyes now or take the blindfold off. It’s nice to make this a more intimate activity by dimming the arena lights and keeping your instructor voice soft. Discuss their experience, what they noticed or felt. Our participants really really liked this activity, and I as a riding instructor loved how it set them up to ride well because it tuned them in to their body and their horse’s body and being connected. I kept drawing back on this activity during the riding lesson, referring to breathing, feeling the horse breathe between their legs, moving with the horse, trusting the horse, being in the present…SO good!

Feed

Let participants help feed the horses. One program fed the horses half their meal at the start of the program, for the observation portion, then at the end participants helped feed the rest of the meal.

Ride

Our program incorporated riding. I always tried to tie in what they learned doing the ground activity (breathing, teamwork, body awareness, etc.) to their riding, and was surprised at how nicely this worked and how the riders really connected the two and it impacted their riding. For example, after doing the Move With The Horse activity above, we focused on our breathe and moving with the horse while riding; and after doing a leading activity on the ground, we focused on leading our horses from their backs using our body language as well.

Conclusion Activities

Most programs have some type of discussion time at the end. Here are some ideas.

Where

  • Circle up in the aisle, sitting in chairs, surrounded by the horses
  • Sit inside the classroom or community area, we always had treats to end

Discussion Questions

  • What did you learn about your horse? What did you learn about yourself?
  • How did what you learned on the ground help you while riding?

Remember

  • This is an informal group support setting – you’re all in this together
  • Wait and listen for each person to speak
  • They will discuss and come up with realizations themselves, it’s not for you to point out – you just listen!
  • Allow about 10 minutes for this

Sample Lesson Plans

Obviously you can’t do all these activities in the same day. Most programs last only 1-2 hours. Jenna says 1.5 hours would have been perfect. Here are some examples of how to fit everything together.

Example 1

  • Introduction to Horses in Aisle
  • Safety Talk
  • Grooming
  • Leading
  • Simple Obstacle Course
  • Discussion

Example 2

  • Yoga Chair Exercise
  • Introduction to Horses in Aisle
  • Safety Talk
  • Give the choice to groom, graze, lead, or have stall time – or progress through all
  • Emphasis on quiet, peaceful time and horse’s input

Example 3 –  one time half day group

  • Arrive, light lunch, mingle with volunteers, check you have all paperwork
  • Discuss how you’re doing today with the horse herd pic or image sheets
  • Kids help create an obstacle course with the volunteers
  • Tour the barn
  • Horse Observation to teach behavior
  • Horse safety
  • Introduce Horses in the aisle (“Horse Meet & Greet”)
  • Group 1 – assign horses, leading, riding
  • Group 2 – vaulting barrel, craft/horseshoes, write letter to troops
  • Switch groups
  • Conclusion, discuss other program opportunities if they wish to come back

Example 4

  • Horse Herd Check In
  • Horse Observation
  • Move With The Horse
  • Grooming
  • Riding – tie in what they experience in Move With The Horse

Hope that helps some of you with your programs!

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Note: This is not professional advice, this is a blog. I am not liable for what you do with or how you use this information. The activities explained in this blog may not be fit for every rider, riding instructor, or riding center depending on their current condition and resources. Use your best personal judgement! If you would like to contribute an activity or article, please contact me here, I would love to hear from you!

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