Aboriginal

We humbly offer Aboriginal communities the opportunity to collaboratively develop a culturally relevant, resilience-based model of Equine Assisted Therapy.  Many Aboriginal cultures view the horse with great reverence and sacredness.  Indeed, the horse is often seen as possessing great spiritual power and as teller of truth.  The horse has the ability to lead a person in the right direction and assist humans in understanding their place in the circle of life (Dell et al. 2008; Harrell Clark, 2001). 


A promising avenue to deliver this particular type of EAT is the concept of the four blankets of resiliency developed by Monique Gray Smith (2012).  Hence, Gray Smith focuses on the positive symbolism of blankets in Canadian Aboriginal cultures.   She posits that resiliency in Aboriginal children (and by extension in adults) is fostered when they are (metaphorically) covered by four blankets: (1) a strong sense of self, and a strong connection to (2) family, (3) community, and (4) culture.  “Wearing” these blankets allow individuals to weather the tragic effects that colonialism has had in Aboriginal communities.  Below is what we have conceptualized as a culturally relevant, resilience-based way of delivering EAT to Aboriginal youth at risk and Aboriginal persons struggling with trauma-related issues.

First Blanket: Sense of Self

The horse by its very nature is a powerful teacher about self.  Being a prey animal, the horse is always keenly aware of its environment, including us and our often unconscious, subtle body language.  Hence, the horse is able to rapidly communicate aspects of ourselves that we are not even aware of.  For instance, an anxious person may try to approach a horse with confidence but invariably the horse will detect that person’s fear through her body language and react accordingly, i.e., most likely move away from the person, especially if it is a low-ranking horse. 

Learning to interact with a large and powerful animal like a horse, either by caring for it, learning horsemanship skills or participating in activities in an arena offers the opportunity to develop several important aspects of a healthy self.  These include self-esteem, self-confidence, self-respect, self-monitoring, and self-control.   It also encourages the development of clear communication, healthy boundaries, assertiveness, empowerment, empathy and compassion.   A good dose of humility and humor is also important when interacting with horses!

Second Blanket: Connection to Family

Gray Smith (2012) strongly suggests involving families in any Aboriginal healing program.  She astutely emphasizes how families gain dignity by being asked to help and collaborate.  As such, we encourage direct and extended families to not only be present during but also to participate in  horse-related activities.

Third Blanket: Connection to Community

Resiliency is promoted when an individual feels that he / she is part of a community, part of a “larger whole” (Gray Smith, 2012).  Community members, especially Elders, are invited to take part in the design of horse-related and cultural activities.  Their participation is also encouraged.

Fourth Blanket: Connection to Culture

Aboriginal traditions, teachings, ceremonies and language have suffered terrible losses due to a multitude of colonialism-related events. A strong connection to culture has always been an integral part of the life of Aboriginal people.  Teachings and ceremonies pertaining to horses are an important part of this healing program.  However, the program must be solidly anchored in all aspects of Aboriginal culture including spirituality, stories, songs and ceremonies.  In his book “Teaching spirits: understanding native american religious traditions”, Joseph Epes Brown points that “It is a perilous undertaking and a heavy responsibility to presume to speak of the sacred traditions of another people”.  We side with Brown on this issue and we view Elders and traditional knowledge holders as playing an essential role in rooting the program in culture. 

Dell et al. (2008) describe a culture- based model of equine assisted learning used at White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Center.  They emphasize how the unique combination of equine assisted learning and culture-based model of resiliency allows participants to connect to oneself and to the universal family of Creation.  We invite you to read about another successful culture-based equine assisted therapy program, this one implemented by the One Arrow First Nation in northern Saskatchewan (Link).

Finally, we also invite you to view the CBC documentary “The 8th Fire” (Link) which draws from an Anishinaabe prophecy declaring that now is the time for Aboriginal peoples and the settler community to come together and build the 8th Fire of justice and harmony.  This is the premise of our work with Aboriginal people.

References

Brown, J.E. (2001).  Teaching spirits: understanding Native American religious traditions.  Oxford University Press.

Dell, C.A., Chalmers, D., Dell, D., Sauve, E., & MacKinnon, T. (2008).  Horse as healer: An examination of equine assisted learning in the healing of First Nations youth from solvent abuse. Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health, 6, (1), 81-106.

Gray Smith, M. (2012). The ripple effect of resiliency: Strategies for fostering resiliency with indigenous children.  Little Drum Consulting. (Link)