A few years ago, our homeschool association was invited to an equine-assisted learning or EAL demonstration about an hour away from where we live. I was immediately intrigued because horses are a passion in our family and because as a home-learning family, I am always looking for fun and innovative ways to help the kids learn. I really didn’t know what to expect, but I immediately loved what I saw.
Equine-assisted learning is an effective approach to human development that encourages individual and team growth according to Cartier Farms (the creator of the program in Canada and the training authority for certification). To expand on that, EAL seeks to encourage problem-solving and helps participants think about the “rules” they have set for themselves and why they think the way they do. It also gets participants out of their comfort zones by pairing horses with new ways of thinking. Imagine having a team of three where the person leading the horse is blindfolded. The other teammates must work together to verbally instruct the blindfolded member on how to get the horse through an obstacle or series of obstacles.
Teamwork, team building, and communication are taught throughout the experience. Many participants may have never been near or worked with a horse before and so they are immediately out of their comfort zones. Horses are very honest and provide immediate feedback especially if they don’t like something. They aren’t capable of falseness or deceit. They are herd animals who trust the feedback given to them by other herd members. By pairing these large powerful animals with humans in a learning environment, something beautiful happens.
As I watched my children work in their teams with the horses through the obstacles for the first time, I was quite captured by what I saw. Many adoptive parents are raising children from hard places. These children might struggle with attachment disorder, behavioral disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, learning delays, or other serious diagnoses. Other children from hard places may have trouble making friends, communicating their needs, or understanding verbal and non-verbal social cues. Here I was, watching my own children from hard places who had grown up riding horses of their own learn a full unique set of skills in a new environment.
Previously, I had been teaching life skills out of a book typically suggested for children on the autism spectrum (‘The New Social Story Book’ by Carol Gray). Here I was seeing children learning life skills through a tangible means in a new way. I was quite thrilled that the method included a fun lunch (think popcorn, veggies, and hot dogs) as well as a written component. Even better, struggling writers were assigned a scribe and given help. The help was immediate, with the assistants actively looking for where to jump in so that kids weren’t embarrassed by their inability to get their thoughts onto the paper. Portions of the bookwork included emojis to circle regarding how the participant felt about the day – a great way to foster independent work for those of our kids that aren’t able to write fluently regardless of age.
At the end of our day of demonstration in which the kids completed the first building block of the program, other adoptive parents that had come out for the day were also encouraged. While EAL is not listed as a therapy and the people who run it are not always (but sometimes are) therapists, EAL is definitely therapeutic. The horses selected to be used in the EAL programs are well broke, calm, and gentle. They range in size from mini ponies all the way up to draft horses, and come in all colors and breeds. However, the size isn’t as important a part as the mind of the horses. Horses are prey animals and can react unpredictably no matter how well they are trained. The horses used for EAL must be tried and true horses that are trustworthy around humans who are not always comfortable around them. This will allow participants the ability to gain confidence while working with them even if they are initially in fear of working with horses. This is so important for children that come from pasts of trauma, abuse, and neglect. Children from difficult pasts can regain some confidence when they find (with the assistance of an EAL facilitator) that they can not only handle a horse on the ground but that they can also direct the horse and do amazing things with them. The kids gain confidence and this builds self-esteem. So many of our foster and adoptive families need to see this sort of breakthrough in their children.
Participants in EAL are also required to help with arena cleanup and light horse care. This fosters responsibility and a good work ethic. So many of us as adoptive parents are trying to work on this at home. It is quite beautiful to have a program that reinforces this gently and rewards the kids for taking an active role in keeping the arena and horses clean. When and if things go awry, the program has a unique method to remind kids of the rules without using any shame or blame. For kids that might have had challenges in their lives, this positive framework protects what might be a fragile sense of self.
So far two of my adoptive children have completed an EAL set three times. We have been quite blessed because a local arena just down the road from us has opened up as an EAL facility available to the public. And even better, the new owner is a certified equine-assisted learning facilitator. For several school years in a row, we have used some of our school funding to have several of our kids, both adoptive and birth children, run through the EAL set again. Although it is the same each time, we have found that the girls have learned totally new and different skills in each set. I feel that is partly because developmentally they are at different stages each year. This means that a different part of the program appeals or sticks each time. Most surprisingly, when I went as a helper for their third round of EAL, I found that my girls did not even remember how to do some of the challenges even though they had done them two times before. I think this speaks to the depth of the program and to the vast array of skills that it both encourages and fosters.
As a helper at EAL, I found that the kids opened up so well about their experiences. I was often in awe about what they took away from each session. I was so inspired, and I loved watching the children bloom. One of my favorite parts of the experience is near the end of each session when kids pick a brightly colored word from a word bank and explain why they chose it as their word for the day. Words like communication, loyalty, and trust are common. For families raising children from hard places, we are often striving and striving to get these very things within our homes.
When my friend and the owner of Wyld Acres Farm and Arena asked me if I would like to become a certified EAL assistant, I jumped at the chance. I was excited to become a part of this program. Both so that I could continue to apply the lessons for my kids at home and so that I could engage and give back to other kids from the community. One of my favorite memories in learning the ropes in assisting with EAL is when two of my adoptive children invited my oldest biological child to the graduation day at EAL. This is a day where all participants can invite a parent, caregiver, or another special person in their life to come and see what they have been learning. The best part is that they get to work with their special person through some of the lessons. That particular day my husband was unable to attend and since I was assisting, I was worried the girls wouldn’t have a special guest. The girls asked about having their oldest brother come. It turned out to be so special. Their older brother is a skilled and accomplished horseman for his tender age and definitely knows his way around these magnificent animals. He was thinking this would be a walk in the park. It brought joy and delight to my girls when they blindfolded him, handed him a lead rope, and then gave their usually quite self-confident brother directions through a difficult obstacle course. He laughed and admitted that this was hard. It did my girls wonders to see that other people struggle with new things too. Both these girls have faced many challenges, and are often struggling in some manner whether it is medically or behaviorally. This day, they were in control. They were communicating effectively and it was their competent big brother that needed their help to complete the obstacle that day. Their smiles said it all. They had accomplished something.
We recently finished our most recent EAL set for the kids and I am about to start assisting in a new set for children from a neighboring community. I’m excited. I know that in almost every big group of kids there is someone who comes from a challenging home or past. I know that there is a child who struggles to fit in, communicate, or feel value. There is someone who doesn’t feel like they can do anything right. I am excited to step into the arena and let that all fall away.
Everyone will be on even ground. Those who are normally quite competent will find themselves blindfolded or asked to use only non-verbal cues to help a team member complete a task with a horse in tow. The kids will look at the faces and bodies of the horses to determine what the horse is thinking and feeling. The kids will learn empathy and they will learn what it means to be a team. I, as an assistant, will be right there to step in making sure that everyone is included and that everyone has a turn.
I have learned how to gently redirect without giving all the answers. The beautiful thing is that this translates so naturally to what I need to do at home with my adoptive family. As Cartier Farms puts it, “horses level the playing field.” We humans are fairly small and weak compared to them, and they won’t let us push them around. No one has an advantage. Everyone participating has to learn how to make this work.
For many of us parenting special needs adoptive children, this might be the first time our child has been on a level playing field with their peers. Fetal alcohol syndrome, attachment disorder, and other serious conditions may have left our child feeling on the outside. EAL and the uniqueness of the horse make all children able to equally participate and learn together.
EAL is designed in such a way that it is non-judgemental. Tasks do not need to be completed to be seen as successful. For so many of our children, they may feel and hear often that they are not enough, that they are not keeping up, that they will never get caught up, or that they are not productive. EAL is a safe environment for children of adoption to flourish. Facilitators and coaches are trained to prevent atmospheres where completion and perfection are the main outcome. They are also trained to step in when one participant is clearly always the leader and not allowing others the chance to try out a new role or the flip side when a quieter participant is always remaining in a passive role.
When I talk to adoptive and foster parents, a common theme is looking for something to help. Looking for something to encourage their child, help them grow, or even just to fit in. There is usually not just one solution and most often a varied approach is required. EAL is a perfect fit for foster and adoptive families. EAL is beneficial for adoptees young and old, adoptive parents, or foster caregivers. The connections made and lessons learned are so valuable. There is nothing quite like looking into the soft eyes of an equine partner or smelling their unique, pleasant scent. And I cannot wait until our next EAL set.