Horse Tales Equine Assisted Learning Program (Horsetales) provides an embodied learning experience for social and emotional development to children, young people and families.
Horse tales builds community resilience and wellbeing and is an early intervention approach for young people and families.
The program establishes relational safety and trust between service providers and participants enabling further support and connection.
Horsetales started in May 2016. The program is delivered weekly over six weeks in 2-hour sessions to small groups. It is offered across six primary schools in the Dungog Shire and approximately 128 young people have participated since 2016.
Funding is provided by the Department of Communities and Justice, youth service budget, small grants and donations. The program is supported by volunteers, parents/family members and teachers.
The local need was to engage and connect with an identified group of young people and families affected by a natural disaster as well as providing a primary to high school transitional program to support children in small rural towns. Interaction is made in a practical and relational way that uses a trauma informed approach to support mental health and wellbeing and provide further access to services.
The program was designed and is delivered by Lisa Dyer, Adolescent and Family Counsellor/ Case-Manager, Dungog Shire Community Centre Youth Service and Fran Griffen, Hunter Natural Horsemanship Centre. Lisa and Fran co-facilitate the sessions. Horsetales was inspired by Lisa’s experience over 20 years with young people and families and her own journey of working with horses. The program draws from neuroscience, mindfulness, equine assisted psychotherapy and natural horsemanship philosophy.
The program uses the PERMA model of wellbeing*, summarised below:
P – Positive Emotions
E – Engagement
R – Relationships
M – Having a sense of meaning
A – Accomplishment.
Referral can be self -referral or via a teacher, parent, Communities and Justice caseworker or other service.
*(Seligman, M. (2018) PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466
The program can be designed to meet specified needs and can include families and service providers in design and delivery, making it a personal approach. Sessions begin with peer discussion around the day’s learning outcomes, and close with group reflections, affirmations and positive feedback.
Each participant builds a relationship with the horse and program facilitators for safety and trust where they explore and strengthen awareness of their feelings, thoughts, self-beliefs and behaviour in a secure environment. The participant’s life experiences are paralleled with the horse’s story, providing opportunity for insight and change. Growth in the areas of self- awareness, boundaries, communication, confidence, behaviour management, mindset, trust, leadership, teamwork and accountability become evident.
As learning and adrenaline are linked for both horses and humans, the program teaches use of the breath and mindfulness strategies for emotion management. This helps lower adrenaline levels for the horse and young person, enabling the young person to learn greater self-control. By the end of the program, skills, knowledge, abilities and hopes are recognised within each participant that is transferred into their home and learning environments.
Young people display their skills and knowledge learned to a significant other in the final session, which is followed by a celebration of learning achievements. Participants are presented with a personal journal for ongoing reflection and education.
Dungog Shire Community Centre has supported the program from the beginning in addition to the contribution of funding by Department of Communities and Justice. The program has been proudly adopted by the community and is a valued part of the young people’s resources for support. Horsetales is a significant resource to the Dungog Shire Community, forming a key part of the transition to high school strategy for the six schools feeding into Dungog High School.
Outcomes are gathered through feedback and evaluation of the participants, parents and caregivers, school teachers and case workers. Horsetales improves the participant’s mental health and wellbeing by developing healthy peer relationships, providing a sense of purpose and achievement for greater confidence and self-esteem. Participants have a greater self-awareness of their bodies, minds, and emotional needs and responses due to their lived experiences. They develop techniques for managing anxiety, building positive behaviour at home and at school, maintaining healthier relationships, communicating with family and peers and developing future goals that are supported by the youth service and support agencies.
A program evaluation using the Equine Psychotherapy Institute Evaluation Tool has identified that the nature and relational based program using embodied learning, improves mental health and wellbeing outcomes for young people and families, especially those with trauma histories.
‘…On my first equine therapy session with a family who had a background of complex trauma and relationship break downs I was utterly blown away. This does work! I witnessed the family transform from looking and feeling stressed, worried and full of energy to calm, present and interacting beautifully with each other and having calm conversations about how the family interacts with each other and ways they can improve.
Since then .... Each time I have had the honour of witnessing individuals transform over the session, watched their confidence grow throughout the afternoon, work through some really big emotions, discover their strengths, work with each other through some challenges, talk openly about family communication and challenges with putting up boundaries.
I strongly recommend equine therapy to any family or individual who would like to learn about themselves and their family and learn new skills in relation to emotional regulation, mindfulness, boundaries and different ways of communicating.’
- Youth and Family Counsellor (Port Stephens Family and Neighbourhood Services)
The vision is to extend Horsetales, through secured funding, to more young people, and families and provide wider access in Newcastle, Hunter Valley and the Central Coast.
Submitted by Lisa Dyer, 13/6/19
Mobile: 0431 995 627