Giving Thought: Horses as partners for wellbeing

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought
Allison Alexander is the Director Strategic Partnerships and Communication at Aspen Community Foundation. ACF with the support of its donors works with a number of nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Throughout the year, we will work to highlight nonprofits in the region.
Allison Alexander/Courtesy photo

As we look toward tools and options for supporting youth in our region, it is more important than ever to explore all available options. Behavioral and mental health issues are not one size fits all and, as all humans are unique, their treatment and support plans also look different. While our community continues to build its capacity to truly meet the needs of all of its members, we are fortunate to have a number of options to support youth and families.

WindWalkers is an equine-assisted learning and therapy center with a family-centered approach. Their mission is to provide a variety of equine assisted therapies to aid in the development and growth of those with challenges, be they physical, neurological, emotional, behavioral or psychological. Their services include therapeutic riding, equine-assisted therapy, equine-assisted learning and summer camps.

Their work began with a single horse and two staff members and has grown to 24 horses and a staff of nine. To expand their reach and impact, WindWalkers partners with other local nonprofits to connect their services with those who need them, and they have supported over 9,200 individuals.

Humans and horses have a long and storied history. There are mentions of equine therapy in Greek literature dating back to 600 B.C. It began its contemporary resurgence in 1940s Scandinavia.

As social herd animals, horses mirror human energies and emotions, which can support those who struggle with traditional talk therapies or modalities for working through emotions and issues. Clients are able to see their emotions mirrored for them in a safe and supported environment without the sometimes impossible task of verbally communicating what is inside of them to others.

While a student or youth might be directly involved in working with a horse, family is centered at the core of their work. According to Gabrielle Greeves, executive director of WindWalkers, “We hold a student in the saddle and the family on the ground. Horses are there for everyone’s wellbeing.”

Greeves shared that WindWalkers staff is certified to work with clients as young as 18 months. They are called upon to play a role in supporting county health and human services in instances of adoption to support family integration and moments of family shifts or crisis.

She has also seen the power of transformation within families of teenagers struggling with self-harm and other mental health struggles through Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT). When clients work with EAT for these issues, they are able to process some of their trauma nonverbally and the shifts within them are mirrored through the horse for therapists as well as family members, creating new dynamics.

Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is an experiential learning approach that promotes the development of life skills for educational, professional and personal goals through equine-assisted activities. This type of learning highlights the importance of self awareness in building confidence. Self-awareness is critical for relating to large and powerful horses. Success in this environment has been shown to translate into confidence in the real world leading to better mental health outcomes.

Therapeutic riding is an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs.

Mountain Valley Developmental Services (MVDS), which supports youth and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, is one of WindWalkers partners.

“We find that over time people who participate in WindWalkers’ services are more able to manage emotions and issues they are handling in their lives … it helps support them with controlling their anxiety, with feeling less stressed, and with being able to relate to another living being,” said Sara Sims, executive director of MVDS.

WindWalkers summer camp offerings are appropriate for children of all abilities and as young as 4. These camps are centered around horses, but also support creativity, social skills, and responsibility.

Horses who come to work at WindWalkers have varied backgrounds, but come together for a common mission and undergo an extensive interview and training process to be integrated into the herd and join the team.

While horses may not be able to talk to their clients, the relationships they build change lives.

Allison Alexander is the development director of Aspen Community Foundation. ACF with the support of its donors works with a number of nonprofits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Throughout the year, we will work to highlight nonprofits in the region.


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