Reading is an almost magical process in which deciphering lines and squiggles reveals a rich world of narrative and meaning. For children who have difficulty with reading, however, the doors to that world are largely closed. Addressing struggles with literacy typically conjures images of tutors and flashcards, but at Rise Canyon Ranch—an equine-assisted therapy facility in Southern California—it looks a little different.
Here, in the middle of an arena dappled dusty gold by the California sun, a child quietly ponders a book. A horse wanders over and inquisitively noses the pages. The girl reads to her captive audience. Even when she stumbles over a difficult word, the horse listens without judgement. There’s no pressure, just the horse’s soft gaze and steady presence. The girl reads on.
Though the transformation that happens in this arena—where children blossom into more confident readers—certainly appears to be a type of magic, Theresa DuBois, a psychotherapist and the founder of Rise Canyon Ranch, is a little reluctant to use the word.
“It’s such an unscientific word,” she jokingly laments, “but there’s so much that happens between the children and horses that I just can’t explain.”
A Need to Read
DuBois saw the need for a reading skills program while working with groups of at-risk youth at the ranch. She says, “We were seeing children who had behavioral issues at school, and through some of the activities we were doing, we realized they actually couldn’t read or write simple phrases and didn’t have the literacy skills appropriate for their age level.”
Difficulty with reading and comprehension can stem from a variety of reasons, including ADHD, depression, processing disorders and trauma. Ashamed and embarrassed, children often develop coping mechanisms to keep others from knowing their secret struggle. Some become withdrawn and distance themselves from peers, while others act out or become class clowns. And the consequences of reading issues extend far beyond the classroom years.
“Looking at the research, we know that income-earning potential and literacy skills are positively correlated,” says Tory Seagraves, a psychotherapist and the executive director of Rise Canyon Ranch. “If a child struggles to read, they’re not going to be able to reach their full potential financially. It really does affect someone’s entire life.”
DuBois created Rising Readers—a program offered at the ranch—to provide a fun, judgement-free zone to support children who struggle with reading. Though the eight-week sessions focus on the mechanics of reading, they also tackle a less obvious component of literacy: dismantling the emotional barriers that come with that struggle.
How Horses Help
The learning process begins as soon as a child picks their equine reading partner from the ranch’s eight-horse herd.
“As mental health experts, we can learn a lot from interpreting how children approach choosing their horse,” says DuBois. “Do they choose the donkey? Do they choose the miniature horse? Do they pick the largest horse in the herd?”
What’s remarkable, continues DuBois, is that children typically pick exactly the horse that will offer them the feedback they most need.
Many pick Savannah, a gentle Quarter Horse who will wrap her head around struggling readers and hold them. Others are drawn to Marah, a playful Arabian who keeps disengaged readers interested in the task at hand. Some select Zoey, whose large mule ears are the perfect size for listening to stories. And those who feel like they don’t fit in often gravitate to Sierra the Paint, finding common ground in her unique features.
“These children don’t always have people they can talk to in their lives,” says Seagraves. “They connect with these horses and trust them more than anyone. They really see themselves in these horses. It’s amazing to watch.”
Working together, horse and child become partners in the journey of becoming more confident readers. Though the horses are unable to read or speak, they are able to communicate in other clear and valuable ways.
“As prey animals, horses have stayed alive through the years by being hyper-alert to the world around them,” explains DuBois. “They can pick up on your internal world. And they react in the arena based on your internal world.”
Sometimes, a child loses control in a session when overwhelmed by frustration. Or their anxiety might cause them to rush and move too quickly. “Just like they might act in a classroom,” says Seagraves. The horses respond accordingly, becoming frustrated themselves or moving away from negative energy.
“These are important teachable moments,” says Seagraves. “Seeing how the horse responds helps them slow down and regulate their emotions in the moment. They then take those skills outside the arena and into their lives.”
In addition to being emotional tuning forks, the horses are non-judgmental partners that give confidence to timid readers. In a world where peers can be cruel, educators indifferent and parents unreliable, the horses offer a steady, comforting presence.
“There’s something amazing about working with a 1,000-pound animal that allows the children to believe in themselves in a way they haven’t before—to be willing to try things,” says DuBois. “They start thinking ‘If I can do this with such a big animal, what else can I do?’ It gives them the confidence to read aloud, to speak sentences with emotions.
“Something that is so hard to describe is the look on children’s faces when they can accomplish something. They don’t even need to say anything. To see the connection and that light, the smile that goes across their faces—those moments are truly magical.”
About Rising Readers
The Rising Readers program helps improve literacy skills through equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning. Their experiential approach gives students the opportunity to expand their knowledge as well as identify their own barriers to reading and comprehension in a fun, shame-free environment. Learn more at risecanyonranch.org/risingreaders.
Rise Canyon Ranch—the home of Rising Readers—was a 2020 grant recipient from Feed it Forward™, Nutrena’s giving program that provides support for organizations promoting the life-changing bond between animals and people. Learn more at feeditforward.org.
About Hope in the Saddle
This content is provided by Hope in the Saddle, a program dedicated to sharing some of the most meaningful and important stories to emerge from the equestrian world: stories of how our relationships with horses can help us overcome life’s toughest challenges. Read more stories of hope and healing through horses at hopein thesaddle.com.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue.