Therapeutic program promotes trust and healing with the help of horses

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  • Allison McCully, the unmounted program assistant manager for Cowboy Connections writes the attributes of trust as the group begins their lesson on Thursday, April 15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kaleb Alletzhauser leads Briella Houghton and Vader through the obstacle course during their exercise in trust at the Cowboy Connections class in Goffstown on Thursday, April 15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kaleb Alletzhauser and Sophie Fillip pet Vader before the Cowboy Connections daily lesson for trust on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • Gwendalyn Trainor pets Vader before the Cowboy Connections lesson in Goffstown on Thursday, April 15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gwendalyn Trainor (right) leads Sophie Fillip through the obstacle course during the group lesson about trust as Micah Pinard looks on during the Cowboy Connections class in Goffstown on Thursday, April 15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Gwendalyn Trainor raises her arms as Sophie Fillip crosses the finish line during their Cowboy Connection exercise in Goffstown on Thursday, April 15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Allison McCully (right) shows Kaleb Alletzhauser how to clean out Vader’s hoof at the Cowboy Connections class in Goffstown on Thursday, April 15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Members of the Cowboy Connections class feed Vader after the class.

  • Kaleb Alletzhauser gets ready to throw some hay for Vader after the Cowboy Connections class is over on Thursday, April 15, 2021. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 4/17/2021 2:00:41 PM

Blindfolded with a pink bandana, Briella Houghton shuffled through a maze of horizonatal logs and plastic objects, one hand clutching the lead of a miniature horse and another waving frantically in front of her.

The class’ assignment was to navigate through an obstacle course with their eyes covered based on their sighted partner’s instructions, all while dragging a small horse along with them.

Whatever Houghton’s partner was instructing her to do didn’t matter— Vader, a brown, three-foot tall horse, had his own plans. He stomped through the cones placed neatly in a line and pulled forward to nudge a plastic rock, nearly pulling down Houghton in the process.

“The idea is you trust your partner,” the leader of the class announced “It doesn’t matter if you knock every single thing over.”

Each week, about seven elementary and middle school aged children gather at an idyllic property in Goffstown for Cowboy Connections, a class that uses horses as a conduit for teaching life skills like respect and communication. Each class is centered around a theme like responsibility, choices or, in this case, trust.

To a certain extent, Vader’s behavior is not only expected but necessary to teach the student intangible skills that can’t be conveyed on a whiteboard.

“If you get in a tug of war and you just stand there and try to continue to pull on him, he weighs 300 pounds and he’s not going to move,” said Kristen McGraw, the unmounted program manager at UpReach Therapeutic Equestrian Center. “However, if you clearly communicate what it is you’re asking him to do, and you’re assertive, and you have clear boundaries, he moves forward.”

Kathryn Conway, the operations manager of UpReach, said the animals can be a powerful tool to teach self-regulation, boundries and trust, which some of the students in the class struggle to overcome.

“They’re not people pleasers. They read energy,” Conway said of the animals. “If they’re reading good, clean energy in you, they’re going to mirror you. You can’t get on a horse if you’re all over the place— you can’t even approach them.”

Some students in Cowboy Connections have recently graduated from a 7-week program UpReach holds for children who have experienced trauma. Others merely enroll in the program to spend time with their favorite animals.

Spending time with the horses gives students a constant stream of feedback about their behavior, without adults having to explicitly correct them, she said.

UpReach offers a range of services for more than just children. Starting in May, some of these programs will be offered at the Merrimack County Complex in Boscawen. Through a partnership with Merrimack County Human Services, the organziation will hold sessions for veterans experiencing PTSD, people battling addiction, survivors of human trafficking, and front-line healthcare workers and first responders facing compassion fatigue from the pandemic.

Conway said she has seen first hand how these programs have helped people. One man, who at Gatehouse Treatment for a substance use disorder, started visiting the horses in the first 30 days of his recovery. When he was with the animals, it was the only time he wasn’t thinking about using, he told her.

Accross the barn at the beginning of the obsticle course, Kaley Pinkham, one of the more reserved children in the class was paired up with Checkers, a black-and-white miniature horse who recently retired from his career as a traveling fair pony.

Before attempting the obsticle course, she gently placed a hand under his neck and pulled him into her chest. Checkers happily complied.

“If you build a relationship with a horse, that’s transferrable to a relationship they build with people,” Conway said.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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