Back of Beyond

Photo by Alison Withey

By Sarah Ryeland

Equine assisted learning. Equine experiential learning.

When you hear those terms, what comes to mind? Last week I would have said something along the lines of “using horses to help people with disabilities” or “helping those with challenges overcome their fears” or something like that.

How right I was. And how mistaken.

What I soon came to discover was that all of us – regardless of age, social, mental or physical ability, or level of experience – have a lot to learn when it comes to both horses and ourselves.

When I heard that Back of Beyond Equine Centre offered equine assisted learning programs, I was instantly intrigued. I had always been fascinated by horses, but a little timid around them, too. My mother fell off a horse as a young child and somehow her fear of these beautiful creatures had trickled down to me.

Lately though, I’ve been really drawn to horses. Here’s what I knew about them:

–       They’re very intuitive

–       They’re emotional, sensing how you’re feeling

–       When you look into a horse’s eye, it feels like he’s looking into your soul

–       They’re HUGE when you get up close

Obviously, I didn’t know a lot. But it turns out I was right on all four counts.

When I told Mom I was going to visit Cathy Foyston at Back of Beyond to learn more about equine assisted learning, her eyes got very big, her body shrinking, saying: “I’d be so frightened.”

But I put on a brave face and told her she had nothing to worry about. Was I also convincing myself? Maybe. But I was excited, too.

As soon as I got to the farm, I knew it would be a good day. Friendly riders with arms full of gear smiled warmly in my direction and there were horses in fields as far as the eye could see. Cathy greeted me in the barn and introduced me to her friend Alison Withey, who has recently discovered a love for equine assisted learning herself.

The first thing Cathy did, was ask me what I knew about horses. I felt a bit foolish reciting the list mentioned above, but it was the truth.

Then she asked me why I liked horses. That one was harder to explain.

“They’re … neat,” I said, hesitating. “I’m drawn to them because they seem emotional I guess? How can I put this into words?”

Alison and Cathy exchanged a knowing look. “It’s hard to put your finger on it,” they agreed. The point was made.

After learning a few interesting horse facts, we walked over to Pony’s stall for a bit of an introduction. Alison and Cathy taught me about boundaries and how to show Pony where my personal space was so that she didn’t invade it. It turns out horses, if you show them how, will respect your personal space. Now that, I like.

Pony and I built up a rapport and soon enough, I was in her stall grooming her. The next lesson for me to learn was the power of intent.

“Try to move Pony from one side of her stall to the other,” said Cathy. Sure, no problem. A thousand-pound horse should be simple to move.

I couldn’t do it.

“Put your hand on her shoulder and tell her where you want her to go,” Cathy said, patiently.

I placed my hand on Pony’s shoulder and squeaked, “Move over please, Pony.”

Nothing.

Horses don’t speak our verbal language. I could ask her politely, speak in German, repeat myself until I’m blue in the face – it wouldn’t work. What I had to do, said Cathy and Alison, was have intent.

When I visualized Pony moving where I wanted her to go and focused on moving that energy through my hand, she did it. It took a few tries and I felt a little nervous, but when it finally happened – what a feeling. This horse understood what I was trying to tell her when I finally started speaking her language.

After a bit of practicing and a lot of emotional communication, Pony and I left the stall and headed for the indoor arena.

My next lesson was to lead Pony around the arena by a rope. I was to get her to walk beside me (without crowding my personal space), stop when I told her to and move her body when and how I directed her to. Daunting.

As I led her, I could feel my confidence growing. Already I was feeling a connection with Pony – she was listening to my instructions and wanting to do what I told her. It felt good. My confidence was allowing her to feel confidence in my presence – what an extraordinary feeling.

Eventually I was able to take her off the rope and keep her by my side. I even took off running and she trotted beside me.

I felt like Pony was a respectful horse – she didn’t crowd me or make me feel nervous by being too close. When I mentioned this to Cathy and Alison – my constant cheerleaders throughout this whole process – they said something that surprised me.

“You have very clear boundaries,” they said. “It’s coming from your core.”

“When I first went into the arena with Pony, I’d stop and she’d be right on top of me,” said Alison, noting that Pony’s head would be on or beside hers for the longest time. “It’s because I wasn’t enforcing my boundaries. As women, we tend to let people walk all over us, but you’re really strong in that department.”

I was speechless. This horse wasn’t just trained to act this way. She was listening to my body language and doing what I wanted her to. Amazing.

As we tucked Pony back into her stall, I felt rejuvenated. I felt confident and powerful. I had learned things about myself that I never knew before. Was that me, confidently leading a giant beast around an arena? Me, casually moving this thousand-pound creature with the power of my intent? What a heady feeling.

One of the greatest stories Cathy and Allison told me was that of a young boy with autism. He struggled with reading social cues and making himself understood. After spending time with Cathy and the horses, he looked up and said, “I had no idea you could tell how something was feeling based on their face or body language. I bet you could apply that to people, too.”

We all have our lessons to learn. And with horses as non-judgmental teachers, we see ourselves mirrored back through their behaviour. It also helps that Cathy, a trained early childhood educator and overall patient and loving person, is there to guide her students.

At the end of it all, I felt changed. I believed that I could do so much more than I had ever imagined. I could be understood without the use of words, on a much deeper and more basic level.

To think that equine assisted learning would only benefit those with “challenges” or “problems” was looking at the situation through a very narrow scope. Yes, this experience would be profound for someone who is unable to communicate through conventional means. But it was also profound for me – a person who clearly had a little to learn about herself, and now feels like she’s just getting started.

For more information, visit Back of Beyond’s website

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