How Horsemanship Fuels Inner Change

I remember the first time I saw Allie Barnett (Safe Haven Equine Ministries, Founder & Director) in the round pen working with Scarlet. With a crowd of 10 or so people watching her work, she moved confidently to the middle of the pen and motioned for Scarlet to move along the fenceline around her. After a few moments, Allie had the pony trotting around the ring and would keep Scarlet moving at a consistent pace with little flicks in the air with a training stick or a quick click of the tongue. You could see that Scarlet was fully engaged and was constantly watching Allie for every cue. Allie stopped her and signaled for Scarlet to turn and circle her in the other direction. Once Allie had her moving again, she turned abruptly so her back was facing the pony, put her head down, and stayed like that.

Just like me, Scarlet looked at Allie with confusion and wonder. Scarlet's head dropped and her pace slowed as she circled the pen one more time. Confused on what to do next, Scarlet slowly walked over to nudge her ring leader, as if to ask her what she was supposed to do. This act of obedience and display of trust was amazing to me. No words were spoken, no signals were shown. Just the simple turn of the shoulder and Scarlet no longer knew what was expected of her. But she did know where to go to find out what she was supposed to do next.

I learned that day that horses have the unique ability to mirror human emotions. So if someone steps in the round pen with fear and anxiety, the horse will pick up on that and act similarly. At Safe Haven Equine Ministries, we use the emotional mirror that horses have to help at-risk teens recognize that their emotions have an effect in the world. The horses give immediate feedback to the handler or rider’s actions and their large and intimidating appearance forces and individual to gain trust around them. If these kids can learn to handle their emotions, instead of being ruled by them, they will have the power to lead a 2,000-pound animal with just body language. Equine therapy is just one of several techniques that we use to show these teens the importance of controlling their own emotions and re-learning how to trust again.

This post was written by Stephanie Willis, a Safe Haven Equine Ministries Board Member since 2017.