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Hays House Kids Explore the Power of “Willingness”

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It was a sultry Saturday afternoon, 109 degrees in the shade. Three therapists and three teenage girls from Hays House sat under the park’s only tree, watching the sun beat down on three horses in a sand-filled arena with no shade at all. They (the humans, not the horses) were discussing the idea of “willingness” and the girls were being asked to think about and try to practice willingness at today’s equine therapy session.

It appeared to be a tall order. None of the girls were enthusiastic about practicing anything in that kind of heat. Especially when they found out they had to trade their shorts and sandals for long jeans, socks, and boots to get near the horses, for safety reasons.

The equine specialist, IYR clinician and Hays youth specialist tried to get things rolling by asking the girls what they thought the horses might be thinking or feeling.

“Well, duh, they’re HOT!” was pretty much the unanimous reply.

So the therapists brought out buckets of water and a sponge, in case anyone wanted to help the horses cool off, and some bandannas for the girls to soak in cold water and tie around their necks. They also unloaded a pile of materials from the horse trailer: long wooden poles, foam pool noodles, hula hoops, rope, traffic cones, and a large tarp, laid it out at one end of the arena, and challenged the group to 1) construct some kind of shade and 2) get at least one of the horses under it by 2:00 pm, an hour away.

It sounded impossible. But despite being reluctant at first and despite having clarified that participation was voluntary and nobody could make them do anything with the horses if they didn’t want to, all three girls were soon too curious not to mosey into the arena and start coming up with ideas. Nobody stayed behind in the shade.

Through plenty of trial and error and some help from the grownups, the group managed to construct a makeshift shelter that cast a shadow large enough to cover a horse, as long as somebody held up the main support pole. One of the girls who feared she was allergic to horses offered to man the shelter.

The other two girls approached the horses with a halter and lead rope, sometimes working together and sometimes taking turns trying to catch one. Gentleness and patience proved to work a lot better than annoyance or frustration, and they managed to get one of the horses, a chestnut Arab gelding, over to the structure. But at the last minute he balked, planting his forefeet and refusing to budge. Over and over, one of the girls tried to lead him into the shade while the other two called out advice.

“Pull harder!”
“Try walking backwards.”
“Make him do it, come on, he’s only a horse.”

And then, with 2:00 pm only minutes away, somebody said, “Hey, what if you tried going in from the other side?” All the helpers shifted position to open up a kind of tunnel under the tarp. It worked! As girl and horse easily walked through the tunnel, everyone cheered and laughed. And, in what looked unmistakenly like a horse high-five, the little gelding nuzzled the girl leading him and leaned his head into her shoulder.

"Look, he's lovin' on me!" she called out, grinning wide.

Everyone retreated back to the shade for some well-deserved Klondike Bars and a chance to talk about what they had just accomplished. They discussed how forcing, pulling harder or expressing frustration doesn’t work so well with horses (or teenagers). The girls talked about how things really started working when everyone helped and they tried out different ideas. About how good it felt to succeed together—even the horse got into it by the end! And especially, the girls talked about how willingness could make the difference between the impossible and the possible.

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