The boy wants to ride a horse. That is what he is here for, standing inside the corral where Blackie, the horse he has chosen to team up with, is nibbling the ground on the other side of the enclosure.
“Why don’t we catch him?” he asks Elisabeth Lexow, the session facilitator standing beside him.
“He will come to us,” she tells the boy. “He will come over here when he feels you are ready and when he is ready.”
“I am ready,” the boy says, hopping from foot to foot, his voice rising in frustration. “I want to ride him. Why doesn’t he come here?”
“Maybe he doesn’t come because he feels he won’t be safe,” says Lexow, gently. “He isn’t comfortable around anyone who is tense or angry.”
“I am not angry,” is the angry response, the boy’s voice rising as he twists under Lexow’s gently restraining hand. “I am not tense.”
“I think you might be angry, and that is OK,” she says. “To be angry is OK, but if you want Blackie to come, we could try taking some long deep breaths together to get quiet and calm.
“If you are more calm and relaxed, Blackie may come over here.”
Moments later, the child has achieved calm, and indeed, Blackie comes over and lowers his head to sniff the boy’s hair.
But when the boy grabs for his halter, Blackie moves off again.
“He doesn’t like to be grabbed at,” says Lexow. “Blackie is sensitive that way.”
“Foxy,” she indicates a small pony standing in another corral, “is more at ease with sudden movements.
“Horses are like people in that they are all different. It is good to learn how to approach each horse and we learn that by making ourselves calm and then watching the horse to try to see what he needs.”
She has the boy’s full attention now, and the session continues with the child eventually stroking Blackie’s neck and looking thrilled with his achievement.
There was no more talk of riding the horse.
“Though most kids ride the horses occasionally, riding the horse is not the object of these sessions,” Lexow tells me when we are seated at the table in the immaculate office of the Gentle Steps Therapeutic Riding Program.
“What we are interested in doing here is helping the children to develop effective social and communication skills through learning to recognize and deal with negative behaviour in themselves and others.
“The program fosters self esteem, which can lead to learning skills in team work, leadership and problem solving.
“The kids want to be with the horse and, because the horse can’t speak, they have to learn to approach with thoughtfulness.
“The horses are our partners in these sessions, there is no dominance; they have been trained to express their emotions. They know immediately if someone is upset, angry or afraid and they respond right away, and they do so without judgment.”
The children get to choose, which horse they want to team up with, she says.
“There are three horses and each one has his own personality. The kids learn to assess and respect boundaries. The discussions that come up feel real to the kids because the horse is illustrating the issue; it’s not just another person talking at them.”
It is not only the office that is immaculate; the entire area is a model of order and cleanliness, giving it an aura of peace and calm that, in itself, must be very soothing to the young clients.
Lexow herself is very much a part of this calm, this gentleness, and her work has been praised by the counselors who recommend clients to her program as well as the parents of the kids.
“Elisabeth would be good for anyone to be around,” one counselor tells me. “She is extraordinarily mindful of what she is doing and she is naturally gentle and non-judgmental. People trust her; it is obvious she cares about the kids and the horses, and she is scrupulously honest with everyone concerned.”
“I have seen positive changes in the kids I’ve sent to her; their self-esteem is better,” says another. “I admit I’d associated therapeutic riding with mentally and physically handicapped kids, but what Elisabeth is doing is something different. She is using it to address challenges, such as anger management, trust issues, healthy boundaries, learning to focus – all sorts of things leading to help kids with learning disabilities and life skills. It’s an amazing program and a fantastic resource to have in the community.”
“My kid has learned to have more confidence,” one parent says. “Since starting the program she is more willing to step out of her comfort zone. She loved every moment of being there, but then who wouldn’t? It’d be good for anyone to be around Elisabeth and her horses.”
A foster mom reports major changes in her eldest boy since his involvement in Gentle Steps.
“He was non-communicative, with delayed social and emotional skills; he had no expressive language. For him, the program’s best feature has been learning to build trust. He is now much better at being able to say what he needs in an appropriate way. He had issues with aggression and boundaries. He has learned how to get close now, without grabbing or poking.
“Elisabeth is so loving and so calm; with the help of her horses she is able to open up a dialogue with kids who ordinarily don’t speak. I’ve seen the program really work well for kids who are fearful and timid, too.”
“Another feature of working this way with a child is being able to interpret the horses’ behaviour in ways that lead to teaching a child to keep him/herself safer. There are also opportunities to discuss bullying, and even hygiene and diet. Elisabeth maintains an awareness of these opportunities and when they present themselves and she takes advantage of them.”
“I could say lots more about how wonderful this program is,” the foster mom says. “It is not only effective therapy, but it is important for kids to know that there is another way of being in the world than what they have experienced. Through Elisabeth and her horses, they see trust and kindness.”
Back in the office, Lexow talks about how she must control her own occasional feelings of tiredness, or impatience, when she works with the horses.
“They are very aware; one must be authentic to truly be with them. If I go in the enclosure and I am feeling distracted, they pick up on that right away and may walk away from me.”
“It would be good for everyone to experience working with them,” she laughs. “There can be no pretense; one must be totally in the moment, and focused.
“I found my own way to using horses to address behavioural issues, and then I discovered, on the internet, that there are all kinds of programs like this, mostly in Europe and the States, though the concept is still fairly new.”
In an effort to promote understanding the program, Lexow offers Meet and Greet the Horses, special sessions where parents and counselors can come and see for themselves if the program might be good for their kids.
“I believe in the healing power of working with horses; I believe they are great teachers and they have much to give.”
Lexow has received Equine Facilitated Wellness training in Alberta
Gentle Steps is a federal registered charity and is the first program of this kind in the Yukon.
Donations and in-kind contributions are welcome and the program issues income tax receipts for all contributions.
Tor Forsberg is a freelance writer based in Watson Lake.