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Equine workshops inspire students' best selves

Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber - 2/13/2020

For isolated populations and those living in rural communities such as Vashon, some have looked for alternatives to help combat risk factors ranging from PTSD to depression and social anxiety that have especially propelled mental health problems for youth. School officials at the Vashon Island School District have made a concerted effort to improve outcomes and the social-emotional health of their students in recent times. Meanwhile, as researchers continue to explore the relationship between humans and therapy animals, a closer look has been given to horses and the therapeutic benefits of interacting with them.

Those benefits were on display at a workshop last Friday hosted by island-based organization Axiom Equine, where a Beachcomber reporter joined eight students for several activities meant to promote resilience and self-empowerment, giving them skills that are intended to serve them as they progress through high school and beyond.

Amid news of the growing rate of depression nationwide, a recent report from the Firearm Injury and Policy Research Program at the University of Washington found that youth suicide by firearm in King County is rising, for reasons that are unclear. Suicide remains the second leading cause of death in Washington for youth aged 10 to 24 years old according to the state department of health.

The nonprofit HeartMath Institute found evidence in 2014 that strongly suggests horses and humans may be able to synchronize their heart rates in some circumstances. Horses, in turn, appear to be able to recognize nonverbal human body language and respond accordingly, making them almost like mind readers that can help students regulate their feelings. To that end, a $300,000 grant from the island-based Minnie Perkins Foundation, awarded to Axiom Equine last fall, has set the stage for an ongoing series of personal development workshops that will now be offered to all incoming Vashon Island High School freshmen for the next four years.

"What the experience offers is an opportunity for someone to face themselves and their deficiencies and to work through those in a non-threatening, safe environment," said Vashon High School principal Danny Rock in an interview. "For any student who has a history of trauma or a history of neglect or abuse or anything that would give them a particular set of gaps in those areas, they're going to disproportionately benefit."

In the past, said Rock, the high school has sent targeted students identified for displaying at-risk behaviors or tendencies through Axiom Equine workshops when grant funding sources were available for such intervention work and administrators believed the students might find it valuable.

"We've prioritized who we would invite in the past to these workshops. I was looking to get students into it who would particularly benefit from having a safe and powerful experience of increasing their confidence and their ability to interact with other people with confidence," he said, adding that as Axiom Equine broadened and experimented with different types of group offerings, school officials recognized the fullness of the experience possible for students who took part in the program. It became "natural" for VISD to have all students experience it, he said.

The first full-day, hands-on workshops off-campus for all freshmen — those in the StudentLink program and the associated student body executive council have already participated separately — were held last week in a covered arena off of Vashon Highway during student SMART period. For the school district, the workshops are part of an ongoing focus on social and emotional learning for students, fostering their sense of self while expanding their awareness of how to both acquire and communicate consent.

After an introduction and discussion of the purpose of the workshop, Kate Shook, Holly Taylor and Melissa Pate of Axiom Equine led students in intervals from their seats to the forefront, pairing each for team building with four horses, PJ, Lokie, Henry and Steckler, encouraging quiet encounters with the animals, stroking them and finding a comfort zone.

The students were instructed to close their eyes and focus on their horse's breathing, becoming more attuned to the signals from the horses about the contact. Then they were led through an exercise to diminish anxieties, distractions and tensions, imagining a bright light moving through their body and stimulating relaxation.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) programs can be found nationwide, and in conjunction with other mental health treatments, have been noted to aid a range of sufferers including survivors of domestic abuse, veterans returning from war, those recovering from substance use or eating disorders, adolescents struggling with self-identity, and others. Participants, including those in the Axiom Equine program, engage with the horses from the ground only — no riding is involved. But while more study is needed to definitively substantiate the true therapeutic value of EAP, the Axiom Equine program has earned admiration from some students participating in the workshops. In a survey conducted by the organization, one participant wrote that, from their experience with a horse in the program, they had become more aware of how their own attributes and characteristics express themselves through their individual actions, an insight they wrote will help inform their interactions with peers.

One of the main objectives of the workshop is to teach students what effective leadership is. That requires clear communication between them and their equestrian counterparts throughout the day across each activity, including a trust exercise in which students lead a horse through an obstacle course blindfolded, with only a partner instructing them where to step next.

According to the organizers, horses only respond to the right kind of leadership — aggression will cause the animals discomfort and make them fearful. Apprehension and ambiguity will leave the horse unwilling to follow directions. The idea is that if the participants learn to change the way they lead, the horses will change the way they follow, resulting in some gained self-confidence and perspective meant to benefit adolescents as they continue to form their own awareness of self.

The Beachcomber reporter learned firsthand that the horses at Axiom Equine were charitably patient when it came time for him to overcome his fear around large animals. For the uninitiated, it can feel daunting just to approach a 1,000-plus pound hooved giant, but PJ was particularly attentive and forgiving when the reporter retracted after the horse moved without warning. Shook commented that a successful pairing happens when the horse can sense its handler is grounded, and after a time connecting with the reporter, PJ closed his eyes and began to radiate calm.

"The moment for me through this experience is when the horse lights up a piece of the human that they have yet to see within themselves," Shook said in a follow-up interview, adding that such introspection often opens a floodgate for other personal discoveries to be made. For her part, Pate noted that she believes those who feel inadequate because of their naivety around horses later find that they are more confident and empowered by their progress by the end of the day.

The goals for island students enrolled in the workshops vary. Organizers hope they gain a better understanding of how to relate to one another, and learn how to hold clear and stable boundaries. They aim for students to discover courage and increase their ability to trust and be trustworthy.

Superintendent Slade McSheehy, who has a background in counseling elementary, middle and high school students, said he was excited that VISD freshmen will continue to engage and interact with the horses throughout the school year. He said he understands the challenges that students face in the classroom every day. His son is participating this year in an Axiom Equine workshop as well.

"Only when I listened to what [Axiom Equine's] goals were and the outcomes that they've seen when they implemented the program in other places, it was an easy decision to say, 'yes, this is something that our students would greatly benefit from,'" said McSheehy. "When they talk about building resilience and building self-awareness and then learning about relationships and leadership, these are all [experiences] outside of academics that we want students to have in high school. It's really cool."