As a member of the STEP program, I used my money to go to Virginia and work with Project Horse Empowerment Center. They are a non-riding therapy horse farm that uses rescue horses to empower people with disabilities and emotional and mental disorders. I used my two weeks to learn about horse behavior and the skills needed to work with special needs horses, as well as what horses and humans can do to help each other in the way of therapy.
As someone who has always wanted to be a veterinarian, I know how strong of a connection humans can have with animals and the impact those animals can have. However, this project gave me a new perspective on how animals, specifically horses, can change lives. I did not have much horse experience going into my project, in fact, I had started to lean away from horses as a future career option, but decided to give this project a go anyway. Throughout my two-week stay, my views completely changed. Almost every horse at Project Horse has been through neglect or abuse. They all have unique stories and personalities, just like humans. The strength and resilience these horses show is exactly what they need to do therapy work. The most amazing thing to me was that the horses get just as much out of a session as the client does. The horses really understand the job, knowing exactly what they need to do to help the client they are working with, and it never stopped amazing me. Working with Project Horse changed the way I look at an entire species of animals and makes me want to work with horses in the future.
Several events lead to my change of heart when it comes to horses, but one of the first things was when I met all the horses and learned their stories. It still gives me chills to think about all the hardships these horses have gone through, yet they are still gentle, strong animals. I think these sufferings allow them to do the work they do, because they understand what a client is going though. I don’t think I ever grasped how smart horses are until I felt the compassion these horses have for people. It was incredible to watch the horses use their pasts to help people going through similar hard times.
There are many reasons why horses are phenomenal animals, but my favorite thing about them was that they felt like friends to me. Their personalities really shown through in everything they did and I had a personal connection with each of them. One of the most rewarding moments was getting one of the mini horses, Penny, to let me halter her. She is extremely shy around new people due to extensive abuse and it usually takes months for her to really trust someone and allow them to halter her. Naturally she became one the horses I wanted to bond with most, so at the end of the day, I would go sit her paddock for about 30 minutes and just let her roam around me. I did this every night for a week, working my way up from just sitting there to petting, feeding, and finally haltering her. It was the best feeling in the whole world to see how our relationship grew in such a short time.
The event that really made it all click though was getting to help with a group therapy session. A group of girls from a children’s’ home came out to Project Horse to start a six-week program. There was one girl who arrived with her face entirely covered with her hair. She had been at the home for 5 months and no one had ever seen her face. As they walked around meeting all the horses, they came up to a pasture that housed one of the shyer horses. He was not the best with groups, and usually avoided the larger group sessions. However, that day, as the girl walked up to the fence he came right up to her. He stared at her for a minute, and then she parted her hair and kissed his nose. It was the most amazing thing to watch because both the horse and the girl were finding comfort in each other. I actually have checked in with the group since then, and that girl now wears her hair in a ponytail and is becoming more and more social every day.
This is valuable to me because it has opened a new door for me in terms of a career. I definitely want to expand my horse knowledge and work with them in some capacity in the future. It also just renewed my faith in animals and how much kinder they are than humans. Animals go through horrible things every day at the hands of humans, yet they continue to have love and patience for them. Working with Project Horse Empowerment Center reiterated my career choice. I can never thank them enough for the wonderful experiences and I hope to get involved with a program like this soon.