Fun and games but also learning (photo submitted)

Fun and games but also learning (photo submitted)

Local program uses horses to heal, learn and inspire

The program is called “Iixsanaw wa Alhxapaliikw” in Nuxalk, “Horses are Medicine”

“The best thing for the inside of a man is the outside of a horse.” So said Will Rogers, the famous Cherokee American cowboy, politician and actor. Although Rogers passed away in 1935, this quote has lived on through the ages.

Before we go any further, the disclaimer must be added that I am a firm believer in the healing properties of horses, and I continue to marvel at the lessons they can teach us.

Being the owner of seven horses myself, I have a good understanding of the work they require of us: not only in day-to-day care but in the willingness to explore how we interact with them, and how these interactions manifest instantly before our eyes.

Joy MacKay has been a fellow horse enthusiast since she was a youngster. She grew up riding for pleasure and participating in rodeos, and has been an active member of the Valley Ridge Riders for over 35 years. She has recently opened a business, Equine Liberty Connections, whose purpose is to create meaningful connections between humans and horses, and between humans and humans.

“This business has been a dream of mine for a long time,” said MacKay.” “It’s been a long, slow process, and will continue that way for some time, but there is progress, “ she says, “and great promise”.

The cornerstone of MacKay’s Equine Connections effort, to date, is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL): an experiential, therapeutic form of learning, where horses participate as co-counselors, teachers, and wise healers. The EAL model applied by Liberty Equine Connections uses a combination of the concepts of natural horsemanship, play therapy, story-telling, reflective opportunities, and problem-solving exercises, and is facilitated within a group format.

As MacKay explains, horses reflect back to you with extreme and immediate precision, and they are always reading your body language. The programs offered by Liberty Equine Connections are based on her training as a Certified Facilitator in Equine Assisted Learning, which uses the unique properties of the horse to create learning opportunities.

Horses have unique characteristics which contribute to a distinct human-animal interaction. The horse is a prey animal that has retained strong instincts and a valuable set of herd-based behaviors as a means of ensuring its survival as a species.

Horses understand how to differentiate between a potential threat, and a calm and assertive nature. EAL provides participants with an increased awareness of themselves, and offers a sense of control resulting from the direct correlation of action and reaction. It also requires adjustment to the unexpected, developing a person’s capacity to cope with situations beyond their control. Empathy, communication and social skills, self-awareness, empowerment and self-confidence are all gained through the simplicity and enchantment of getting to know a horse.

Equine Assisted Learning does not require any riding, making the program accessible to everyone, especially people who might have a fear of riding or are intimidated by the size and power of horses.

“The activities the participants do on the ground with the horses are designed to parallel other settings in life,” said MacKay. “It’s intended to facilitate self-reflection and encourage teamwork. A lot of it involves non-verbal communication, which is the primary language of the horse, and this requires careful attention to follow and understand.”

Unlike a century ago when the world was still essentially powered by the horse, most people nowadays rarely have interactions with horses on a daily basis. Once an indispensable part of human society, the horse has now taken on a certain air of privilege. Their care is demanding and their requirements out of reach for many people, leading many to have limited contact with an animal that was once the main source of transportation and the workforce for millions of people.

While MacKay’s concentration has been on the EAL component of her business, she eventually she hopes to include a broader range of services in the Liberty Equine Connections experience, from horse boarding to youth work-and-learn opportunities; corporate team building events to women’s wellness retreats.

However, the EAL projects, which have been well received by the community, along with a small number of riding lesson clients, are filling all of her available time, for now.

To date, MacKay has been able to offer three separate EAL programs to community youth, thanks to supportive relationships being forged with community partners, including the Community Support Society, Acwsalcta School, and the Nuxalk Nation. Funding support has been secured from local and non-local sources, including the Nuxalk Nation, Central Coast Regional District, Vancouver Coastal Health, Canadian Red Cross, Community Action Initiative, and the Provincial Government, through a Civil Forfeiture Grant, resulting in the EAL programs being offered at no charge to participants.

“I’m also very grateful for the support of the Nuxalk Language Council, which has recently granted me permission to use the name Iixsanaw wa Alhxapaliikw, which means “Horses are Medicine”, for the youth EAL series,” shared MacKay, “the term articulates very well, the power of this program.”

The healing power of working with horses is well documented. Horses are used in everything from therapeutic riding to helping veterans overcome PTSD, assisting at-risk youth and helping to reform prisoners.

“Every horse I have in the EAL program has its own story,” explained MacKay. “Much like the participants, they all come from different backgrounds, have had unique challenges, and are at different stages in their life, but they do share the common thread that they have good ground manners and are trusted to be in the program.” Often knowing the backstory of the horses will strengthen the bond between horse and EAL participant, and it works both ways…it’s part of the magic.

For her part, MacKay is hoping the work she facilitates will make a real difference in the lives of her participants. “The more I do the work, the more I continue to be amazed by the unique power of the horse to heal and change lives.”


Equine Assisted Learning instructor Joy MacKay with her equine teacher Topless learning to tie a “quick release” knot (photo submitted)

Equine Assisted Learning instructor Joy MacKay with her equine teacher Topless learning to tie a “quick release” knot (photo submitted)