The helping horse: How equine-assisted learning contributes to the well-being of First Nations youth in treatment for volatile substance misuse

Colleen Dell

C. Dell. University of Saskatchewan, Canada; University of Regina, Canada; University of Calgary, Canada; White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Program, Canada; Cartier Equine Learning Centre, Canada; Youth Solvent Addiction Committee, Canada; Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, Canada; National Native Addictions Partnership Foundation, Canada; Saskatoon Community Youth Art Program, Canada

BACKGROUND: There is growing interest in Canada and elsewhere about what is commonly referred to as horse therapy and treating individuals who problematically misuse volatile substances. Bringing the two topics together, our study examines if and how the Saskatchewan-based Cartier Farms Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) program contributes to the wellbeing of First Nations youth in treatment for volatile substance misuse (VSM) at the White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Program at Sturgeon Lake First Nation. METHODS: Our study is framed within the holistic bio-psycho-social-spiritual framework of healing applied by the White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre. Its similarity with Cartier Farm’s EAL program addresses whether EAL contributes to the wellbeing of First Nations youth who misuse volatile substances; in theory it does. A case-study design was applied in our exploratory, community-based research project to specifically examine how EAL contributes to youths’ wellbeing. RESULTS: Through the use of stories, which reflect a First Nations cultural approach to knowing, this study shares how the EAL horses, facilitators and program content contributed to youths’ wellbeing in multiple ways and to various extents. The youth experienced increased: a) physical wellbeing largely through physically touching and interacting with the horse; b) social wellbeing primarily through developing relationships with the horses and others, bettering their communication skills, having an important new experience in their life, and positively changing their behavior; c) emotional wellbeing mostly through increased self-identity, increased self-worth, improved ability to problem solve, and a more positive attitude; and d) spiritual wellbeing through just being with the horse and developing a bond. The horse was also found to have a cultural significance for some First Nations youth in the EAL program. The horse offered the White Buffalo staff a tangible connection for teaching the youth about who they are. CONCLUSION: In a creative attempt to ensure the findings make their way into the community, as well as inform policy and practice, they have been translated into an artistic expression painting in partnership with the Saskatoon Community Youth Arts Programming group.

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