A new kind of horse power

Teens with severe mental illness find new confidence in working with rescue horses at a Langley ranch

Jonathan Pichette, 17, tends to horse Rio at the end of a six-week therapeutic horse program at a Langley farm. The program is part of Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Adolescent Day Treatment Program for youth who are struggling with psychiatric difficulties. (BELOW) Pichette hugs Rio on the last day of the therapeutic program and Rachelle Sall, 15, tends to Genevieve at end of a six-week therapeutic horse program at a Langley farm.

Jonathan Pichette, 17, tends to horse Rio at the end of a six-week therapeutic horse program at a Langley farm. The program is part of Surrey Memorial Hospital’s Adolescent Day Treatment Program for youth who are struggling with psychiatric difficulties. (BELOW) Pichette hugs Rio on the last day of the therapeutic program and Rachelle Sall, 15, tends to Genevieve at end of a six-week therapeutic horse program at a Langley farm.

For teens living with mental illness, their world can feel out of control at times. At other times it can be frustrating and isolating.

But a new program that brings teens together with rescue horses gives youth with mental health issues a new sense of empowerment and a bond with some special “gentle giants.”

On Monday, Rachelle Sall, 15, and Jonathan Pichette, 17, graduated from a six-week program at Langley’s Healing Heart Sanctuary where the two teens, who have mental health issues, learned to lead horses.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself.

“I really learned how to control my emotions,” said Pichette.

“When I had to pick up a horse’s hoof I was really anxious about it, but I had to control my fear. I told the horse that I was anxious but I will do this.”

He explained that the “more you accept your emotions, the more willing the horse is to work with you.”

Later, he showed how he calmed Rio, by putting his hand where the horse’s heart is and putting a hand on his own heart at the same time.

Breathing deep breaths through the belly, a horse will synch up his breathing with the human and soon Rio’s head lowered, his eyelids drooped and his ears came forward. Pichette had relaxed the horse.

The Surrey teen has found the program so rewarding that he has began volunteering at the Aldergrove horse ranch.

Linda-Ann Bowling, Healing Heart Sanctuary owner and facilitator of the therapeutic horse program she calls ‘Youth with a Purpose … a New Kind of Horsepower,’ said horses are highly intuitive and react to the energy people give off.

“Horses are sensitive animals and respond to people’s emotions, moods, and non-verbal language,” said Bowling.  “Through their work with the horses, youth learn healthy boundaries, responsibility, assertiveness and a variety of ways of interacting more positively with others.”

The youth don’t actually ride the rescue horses, but form a leadership role with the large animals, bonding with them by grooming and taking them through obstacle courses.

The youth participating in the horse power program come from the Adolescent Day Treatment Centre in Surrey, which supports teens, aged 13 to 18, who are experiencing severe psychiatric difficulties such as psychotic, mood and anxiety disorders. They are also struggling with their academic, family, and social functioning.

Teens taking part come from Langley, Delta, Surrey and White Rock and attend the program four days a week for six months.

As the expression goes, “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”

The teens may have been led to this program but they are lapping up the time with the “gentle giants,” said Sall.

Out of the six horses she worked with in the program, she bonded with the only female horse, Genevieve.

Sall, who is shy herself, bonded with the most confident and difficult horse in the group.

“If you aren’t the clear leader, she won’t go with you,” said Bowling. “She is more than happy to give you horse hugs, but won’t move an inch if she sense any skepticism.”

Sall said Genevieve has given her a confidence she didn’t have before. The huge, beautiful mare has forced her to be a leader and the reward is the trust the animal has placed in the Surrey teen. Sall has been able to walk Genevieve through an obstacle course and over a bridge, something many horses are reluctant to do.

The centre’s youth care worker Kristine Bateman has already seen the benefits of the program.

“It’s nice for them to step outside of themselves for a while. The skills they are learning here are in the moment decision making. They are problem solving on the spot and learning that it’s OK to ask for help,” said Bateman. “By the time these teens get to us (at the centre), they have been struggling for a while.

“They’ve spent a lot of time avoiding things like school. This is giving them life lessons about perseverance.”

Leading a horse is no easy task. As Bowling explained, horses are constantly testing your leadership.

Giving up would be an easy out for anyone and a defense mechanism for these kids, said Bateman. But she’s heard the kids say: “‘If I can get a horse to move and walk over a bridge, then I can finish this math question,’ or whatever task they found difficult before.”

Bowling has been inspired by the teens’ willingness to learn.

“We think it has gone amazing,” she said. “What we saw was kids problem solving in the moment.”

When the teens join the program, the horses don’t see them as youth, she explains.

“We form a collective herd. We aren’t kids, staff and horses. And if you don’t lead a horse, they will pull you along.”

The program is work for the horses, too.

Just like humans, they have off days and they are “challenged by choice” not by force, just like the youth in this program. If they aren’t feeling up to it that day, they don’t have to participate.

This is the first time time Fraser Health has partnered with Healing Heart Sanctuary.

A total of $15,000 in funding from three donors to the Surrey Memorial Hospital Foundation has allowed the centre’s teens to take part in the Horse Power program.

Thanks to this funding there will be a summer and fall session as well.

And the demand is certainly there, because one in five children will experience a mental health challenge, according to Dr. Karen Tee, manager of Fraser Health’s youth and young adult mental health services.

To learn more about Healing Hearts Sanctuary go to unbridlingyourbrillance.com.