by Sonja Rhodes
There are many ways that we can define freedom or confinement. A person may feel restricted by influences in their environment, or by internal restraints built up around ideas and beliefs held about oneself. Other people may feel held back by physical limitations.
I believe that horses offer nuggets of wisdom in self-awareness. Horse wisdom helps move our mental, emotional and physical limitations to a place of balance, harmony and inner-truth. When we find our rhythm and balance its like an internal light radiates out of every pore in our skin and we shine like stars in the night.
When I began working at Cherry Gulch boarding school near Emmett, Idaho we were coming into winter. I started working in late November with two days of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy each week and three days of riding over the weekend, starting on Friday.
Alex probably wouldn’t have described himself as shining when he first started going out for horse activities. Initially he didn’t appear very interested in the horses. He had stated at different times that he didn’t feel very safe around them.
Through the winter the weather was sometimes damp so in the beginning the boys would lead the horses on walks down the road or up in the hills with me, I wanted to get to know the ranch horses better so I would know which boys to match with each horse. Leading is good exercise for both the boys and the horses, and it is always fun to be out around the ranch on the trails or down the lane.
As time went on I learned which boys were confident or experienced with horses and which horses would be safe for boys who had either not ridden before, or had emotional triggers that might be upsetting to some horses.
We have one horse at Cherry Gulch that all boys ride first before I will allow them to ride the other horses. This horse is named Smokey. He is our little trooper! The smallest and oldest of the herd, an old barrel racing horse who will run with the experienced boys if they are persistent in asking and will stand stone still, eyes closed, waiting for the boys who are feeling intimidated and unconfident. Once they gain understanding and focus on what they need to do to communicate, then Smokey begins to travel. He gives the gift of awareness in attitude, focus and partnership. This translates as freedom from negative behavior, lack of focus and being self-absorbed.
Alex started on Smokey, and over the weeks he rode him in the round pen, the arena, and down the Cherry Gulch lane. Alex experienced riding both saddled and bareback, trotting and cantering on Smokey. Next he moved on to Skipper.
Skipper is a big, stout mountain horse. Alex’s confidence had grown in leaps and bounds through the winter and him riding that powerful horse with ease was very rewarding for him, this was clear from the big smile that stretched across his face as he rode. Skipper is very smooth to ride so Alex trotted around the arena and became familiar with the movement of the horse and how to maintain balance and control. Skipper gives a gift in his gentle strength and power. Weighing in at nearly 1300 pounds, he can appear intimidating. His size is undeniable, yet he is managed with little more than a thought. Perhaps strength and power are determined more from our internal clarity than our external appearance…there is freedom in the wisdom of understanding these things.
Alex is sensitive to his surroundings, taking in and filtering through the activity, energy and attitudes around him---this is what horses do all day long and even in their sleep so they know naturally when they are with a person who has this type of awareness even if the person doesn’t notice. When a person is tuned into their surroundings yet stays calm and grounded a horse can feel safe with them. This explains why some people seem to have a natural connection with animals. Alex’s sensitivity to energy and attitudes around him seem to represent his confinements. It is my perception that these things are the pressures that crowd him. This can be hard for a teenager to understand or describe no doubt as it can’t be seen or heard. Horses are so tuned in to their surroundings. Being alert to attitude, energy and body language is what keeps a horse alive in the wild.
On Saturday, February 21 Alex asked to go out for horse activities. He asked if he might be able to ride Duke.
Duke is the tallest horse on the ranch, standing near 16 hands. He’s a Thoroughbred cross; gray faded to white with the biggest, soft black eyes and kind expression. Duke is a retired Ranch horse, 16 years of age. When I first started working with him he was all business, rearing to go and no time to stand still. I had been riding him but so far hadn’t let any of the boys ride him yet. Of all the boys I felt Alex would make a good fit for Duke, so on that warm, sunny day we agreed to saddle Duke up and give it a try.
Alex started in the round pen, climbed aboard and rubbed Duke on the neck. Duke was calm and relaxed and so was Alex. I asked Alex to walk around doing figure 8 curves and stops to show me he had control. Alex and Duke walked around together looking like they were of one body…Duke has not looked or behaved in such a calm, confident manner since I’ve been there—even with ME! To say I was pleased is an understatement. Alex and Duke got familiar with each other in the round pen and after about 45 minutes he asked if he and Duke could join the other two boys and their horses in the arena.
Alex and Duke walked and trotted around the arena and as that became familiar and comfortable to them both, Duke broke into a gliding canter! Alex had never gone that fast on a horse so as they rounded the corner I held my breath. They rounded another corner at a rapid speed yet it felt like slow motion as I watched Alex look my way, making eye contact. I said “ok, Alex—breathe, sigh and ask your horse to stop.” And he did. Duke came to a graceful stop, stood steady and relaxed—waiting for Alex’s next cue.
Look at the freedom a young boy gave to a horse! To be able to run like the wind, emotions controlled, safe to move forward in the gentle, steady hands of his rider. And the horse gave Alex the gift of turning loose and allowing speed and movement to be an experience he could take hold of and enjoy! Together they filled in the gaps for each other to share a freedom they hadn’t yet felt alone.
Harmony, balance, inner truth--To know they are capable, safe and willing to step out beyond the boundaries they’ve placed around themselves to reach a little higher, to shine like a morning star in the darkest hour of night…that is a journey toward true freedom.
Written by Sonja Rhodes Equine Specialist Cherry Gulch Emmett, Idaho
Cherry Gulch is a ranch-style, therapeutic boarding school designed specifically for 10 -14 year old boys. Cherry Gulch’s supportive, encouraging and respect-based approach is designed to build students up—rather than tear them down. Cherry Gulch is passionate about providing early intervention and prevention to help boys reach their full potential and become well-rounded, pro-social young men. We are dedicated to providing outstanding therapeutic and academic services to students and their families. This is accomplished in the context of a safe environment working toward “Building Brighter Tomorrows for the Boys of Today.”