Horses as Mentors

Imagine a warm summer day in Vermont. The trees are deep green, the hills are hazy. A group of riders and horses have gathered in the heat. At a distance this might look like any other group riding lesson; up close, it is far more personal. These riders, girls and young women, have a wide variety of backgrounds; some of them are living with physical or mental disability, some come from low-income families, and a few from relatively stable lives. They all have this in common: horses.

In 2013, the Vermont Women’s Fund awarded Vermont Horse-Assisted Therapy (VHAT) a grant to launch a pilot program working with young women at risk, using the horse as a lens through which to teach social and life skills. The program provides an intensive week of riding tailored to each girl’s individual level accompanied by hands-on experience with barn management, land stewardship, and business. The students learn to drive the tractor, mend fences, attend a session with a veterinarian and a farrier, and receive lessons in personal finance and company management.

“Our goal is to have them use the tools they learn from horse-and-human interactions and integrate these skills into positive human-and-human interactions,” says Donna Prudhomme, VHAT’s Executive Director.

In 2014, the Women’s Fund awarded VHAT a second grant to help the fledgling program grow. The second summer program was a very diverse group of students in terms of age, ability, and background. Despite this diversity, the girls bonded closely to each other, helped each other, and made sure to stay connected afterwards through social media.

Launching this program through the Women’s Fund has brought a new focus to VHAT’s work. “We were initially very focused on providing services to students on the autism spectrum,” Prudhomme says, “but through our work with the Women’s Fund, we’ve begun to understand this gap that exists for some young women–it’s not just the lack of role models. There’s bombardment of so much information from so many different directions about what a girl is supposed to be, and a lot of these young women get lost. They don’t always get the support to ask ‘Who am I? Who do I want to be?’ We’re finding ways to work more and more with teens, teaching them to function as peer aides and having them work in the programs with us as colleagues. By giving them opportunities to mentor younger students facing challenges greater than their own, we can give them a real sense of empowerment.”

In the shade of a barn, a horse and a girl are engaged in a ritual. The grooming brush makes a satisfying sound as it pulls the dust from the animal’s flickering withers. The first time she did this, the girl was afraid. A horse is a thousand pound animal. It could crush you if you aren’t careful. On this day, though, she is calm, and the horse is calm, too. She can do this herself now. She and the horse are learning to trust each other. And she is learning to trust herself.

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