“Our horses were our strength. They really empowered our people in every way, spiritually, emotionally, physically,” Tom Ziegler, a First Nations horseman, said in an interview with a Nebraska station KETV.

Ziegler had travelled back to the reservation he grew up on to help youths who are battling addiction and mental health issues to connect with horses. “We’ve got so far away from our traditional ways that our people are lost,” Ziegler added.

Closer to home, an equine assisted therapy (EAT) program in Sudbury is helping First Nations women who have experienced trauma and violence. The Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre, which focuses on urban indigenous women, held two sessions this summer. The program was headed up by social worker Marcia Manitowabi, has been running a youth EAT program. She told CBC News, “Really being able to give them a chance to use their voice and to be part of this, because I know how much these horses help people.”

The program at the Shkagamik-Kwe Health Centre involved pairing each woman with one horse and giving them time to groom and build trust with the animals. Then the women had to guide their horses through obstacles. Some of the participants had never been near a horse before.

Manitowabi told the news outlet that she witnessed changes in many of the women after only one session. “I think it was so successful. I felt so relieved and happy [afterwards]… Just to see so many of these women really connecting with the horses, smiling, talking, and I felt we had such a good connection.”

Read the full article here.

On the other side of the country, and as reported by Horse Canada, the Tl’etinqox First Nation in British Colombia were given $1.9 million in federal government funding, plus additional funds from the provincial government, to buy land and build an equine facility. The program will include riding and horse care and seeks to teach “life skills, mentorship, Indigenous teachings and qualified professional support to address the roots of trauma through the power of healing with land and horses.” The facility is expected to open this fall.

EAT, or equine assisted learning (EAL), has received a lot of attention from the mainstream media and even in movies and television. Studies have shown that it works for various mental health issues including PTSD, addiction, autism and eating disorders, to name a few. Working with horses also helps people – young and old – learn leadership skills and gain confidence.

In a 2008 study, Horse as Healer: An Examination of Equine Assisted Learning in the Healing of First Nations Youth from Solvent Abuse, the authors wrote extensively of the horse’s specific role in indigenous lives. “According to the Elders, it is believed by some First Nations that all animals have a spirit whose purpose is to guide and help individuals. The animal spirit is integral to survival and therefore this devout relationship with the animal spirit is viewed as personally significant to each individual. The horse spirit is a friend and teaches about sharing and the profound sacredness found within the act of sharing. The horse program gives the youth some sense of a connection with another life form. It fosters a connection that is based on the horse’s ability to sense a person’s spirit which becomes a unique and personal experience for each of the youth. Through the horse, the youth may be provided with opportunities to reflect on spirit and identity, and apply an interpretation that is meaningful in their own growth and self understanding.”

It’s a philosophy that any horse lover, of any background, can attest to. Horses give us peace and comfort as well as joy. And they also provide therapy when its needed, even to the teachers and coaches of EAT. Back in the spring after Ziegler’s wife passed away, he mounted up with about a dozen or so other riders and headed out on a 400-mile trail ride from Kansas to South Dakota to help him cope with his grief.

“They’re healing, they really are healing,” Ziegler said.