Charity of the Week: Touching Hearts with their Hooves

From early on, children are surrounded by animals. Whether it is a pet, a stuffed animal, books or movies, this child-animal bond teaches compassion and empathy. Healing can take place in the context of this bond. Partnering with the Miller Dwan Foundation and North County R.I.D.E., Amberwing offers kids the opportunity to participate in equine-assisted therapeutic activities. Using horses to touch kids where they are and move them forward into greater mental wellness, equine-assisted therapy is growing as a tool worldwide for treatment in a variety of illnesses and disorders.

Each program at Amberwing spends one afternoon weekly in Esko, MN at North Country R.I.D.E. enjoying this incredible experience under the supervision of Kaylyn Tuhkanen and her amazing group of volunteers. Each child mindfully chooses a horse and is paired with a volunteer who supervises and guides the therapeutic interactions.

Children engage in grooming, leading, and riding their horse. Each activity promotes the strengthening of the bond with the horse and allows children the opportunity to overcome feelings of anxiety or fear. As this interaction progresses, they are encouraged to apply the DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills learned at Amberwing and share insights into their experience. Mindfulness and distress tolerance skills come to life in the horse arena.

The connections drawn when learning becomes experiential is awe-inspiring and life-changing. One teen shared how he loved his horse, but was feeling frustrated that the horse wouldn’t listen as well as the rest of the group. He was able to articulate that this is how his parents and teachers might feel when he is unwilling to listen. Another young man chose a horse that had been abused and felt comforted by the knowledge that this horse was able to overcome the fear associated with abuse and be trainable. One young girl fought through extreme anxiety to master climbing onto this large animal to ride bareback. Even the most resistive kids have shared insights such as “I feel that I mattered to my horse.”, “I learned I could trust myself.”, and “This took away my worries for two hours.” Staff and kids have been moved to tears witnessing these special moments. Bonds between the staff and children are strengthened and the therapeutic benefits of their interactions are increased.

Alternative therapies such as equine therapy create teaching moments which cannot be duplicated in other settings and are part of the multi-model treatment offered at Amberwing. These therapies are not possible; however; without the generous support of the community and the continued work of the talented and devoted volunteers. North Country R.I.D.E. and its supporters have touched the lives of the community’s youth seeking support for their mental health struggles and have made a difference that is both tangible and life-changing!

By Nikki Kostynyk

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