Equine Connections Promote Youth Development Outcomes

a young person sits on a horse with two staff members on either side
Photo courtesy of Hands and Hearts for Horses

There are so many different ways to promote positive youth development. Some youth programs focus on sports, while others emphasize camping, and still others center around art or science. What most youth development programs have in common is a commitment to supporting young people as they build skills and connections through new experiences. Three NRF grantees do this with the help of horses. Hands and Hearts for Horses in Georgia, Courage Ranch in Texas, and Detroit Horse Power in Michigan are all equine-based programs that engage with horses in different ways to meet the specific goals of their programs and needs of their target audiences.

a child pets a horse with the assistance of a staff member
Photo courtesy of Courage Ranch

Equine-based programs have a range of benefits including social connection, emotional growth, cognitive skill development, physical activity, and confidence building. In particular, many programs focus on promoting psychological health and social wellbeing for people with disabilities, mental health conditions, and experiences with trauma. Equine programs can be combined with different types of therapy or youth development curricula in order to reduce anxiety, build social skills, or achieve a range of other goals relevant to the program. In any context, the ability for a young person to communicate and collaborate with an animal much larger than themselves is a powerful experience.

a young child smiles at the camera with her hand on a donkey
Photo courtesy of Courage Ranch

For Courage Ranch, that looks like creating a therapy experience that promotes connection and healing for folks who have experienced trauma. Horses are partners in that experience. The relationship between a horse and a program participant is the foundation for healing from a range of issues that young people at Courage Ranch face, including grief, post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Building a healthy connection with an animal can foster relationship habits based on trust and respect, which is especially important for people recovering from trauma. The trained therapists on staff bring a high level of intentionality to their work and build a treatment plan for each participant that includes equine-based activities specifically related to their therapeutic goals.

a child sits on a horse and looks at the camera
Photo courtesy of Detroit Horse Power

Detroit Horse Power gives youth a safe and enriching space to learn about horseback riding and caring for horses, while also developing lifelong leadership skills around perseverance, empathy, and risk management. In addition, Detroit Horse Power works to showcase a range of jobs related to horses for kids in its programs. One 2023 graduate of Detroit Horse Power reflected on their experience saying, “Horses helped me to discover the hidden parts of myself, like confidence. Before Detroit Horse Power, I was insecure and had trouble showing up as my truest self. I have been able to overcome many fears that were holding me back… I’ve been able to use that confidence and all the other skills and apply it to my future, like speaking in front of groups and getting a full ride to Loyola University!”

One person sits on a horse with an assistive device and two people walk next to the hoprse
Photo courtesy of Hands and Hearts for Horses

Hands and Hearts for Horses is a therapeutic riding program that serves folks with a range of conditions and needs, including autism, down syndrome, and traumatic brain injuries. The organization has been in operation for 23 years, and all instructors are certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). A grant from NRF is supporting Hands and Hearts for Horses’ sensory trail, which is designed to help riders practice skills related to paying attention, following directions, and fine motor skills.

a group of people stand around a horse, which has a rider
Photo courtesy of Detroit Horse Power

While horses are often associated with privilege, it’s important that the benefits that come from connecting with horses are available to young people with a range of identities and backgrounds. Whether its Hands and Hearts for Horses helping youth with disabilities learn to ride, Detroit Horse Power bringing horses into the city to interact with Detroit youth, or Courage Ranch fostering a healing environment for youth with trauma – the opportunity to spend time with horses has the potential to open up new possibilities. These three grantees are doing the work to bring horses and humans together in meaningful ways that ultimately lead to transformational change.