Hooves and hair ties

Girls learn more than how to put on a halter as they work with horses at the Martha’s Vineyard Community Horse Center.

Mya O'Neill and Star Pony. –Photos: Randi Baird

Little girls and horses go together like, well, little girls and horses. Staff at the Martha’s Vineyard Community Horse Center at Misty Meadows in West Tisbury have spent the past few months embracing that girl-horse connection, engaging girls ages 11 to 13 with its Girl Power program.

The Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) experience was supposed to last four weeks, but the girls loved it so much that it grew to six weeks, then eight weeks; it may be at 20 weeks by now.

A pilot program launched this spring, Girl Power focused on ground work; there was no horseback riding involved. The course was designed to challenge the girls emotionally, physically, and creatively, according to Rebecca Miller, one of two instructors for the program. Miller is a certified Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) facilitator as well as a clinical mental health counselor. She leads the sessions along with equine specialist Emma McGlynn. Then there are Chief, Shayna, and Kulani — the three horses that keep the girls on their toes.

The horse center incorporates EAGALA methods to help the girls recognize the benefits of working together, thinking outside the box, and growing their confidence through horsemanship. The group of six girls meets for two hours twice a week, with the equine-related activities changing with each session. Themes like relationships, communication, boundaries, and managing obstacles are woven into the sessions as the girls work with the horses to complete their assigned tasks.

“They use a team approach,” Miller explained.

“And the horse is a partner in that team,” McGlynn added. “The girls learn that how they react to the horses through their energy and body language is part of communication.”

Horses are sensitive creatures, Miller said: “They’re very sensitive, and they’re always on guard. If your energy switches, they know it.” Most sessions feature a short time for the girls to run around a bit and let loose some of their excitement and energy before they begin working with the horses, Miller explained.

At a recent Wednesday session, the girls, including Imogen Taylor, G.G. DeBlase, Hunter Tomkins, and Mya O’Neill, were tasked with setting up an obstacle course with a path wide enough for a horse and a person to walk through.

Then for the tricky part: “One person gets blindfolded, and their job is to lead the horse through the obstacle course blindfolded. Those without the blindfold will help them through it; their partner will tell them which way to go,” Miller instructed the girls. “And they can’t touch the horse or the other person.” Then she reminded them that there’s always the embedded feature of a time-out if they’re not feeling safe.

The activity appeared fairly simple and fun as the girls worked together, lining up long plastic pipes, making a border, and even setting up a mini jump for the obstacle course. It got a bit trickier after Miller took her long scarf from around her neck and wrapped it over Imogen’s eyes, as she decided to be the first to try the course blindfolded. She would count on her partner Mya to help her take Shayna, the youngest and most curious of the horses, through the course.

“Hmmm, this is more complicated than it seems,” Imogen said. “I can’t see.”

“That’s the whole point,” her partner reminded her.

The third time around the course was the charm, as Shayna made a little hop over the low jump the girls had constructed.

Hunter and G.G. were up next, and got a little hung up when Hunter instructed a blindfolded G.G. to “parallel park.”

“I don’t know what that means,” G.G. replied as she used her feet to find the boundaries of the course.

When the activity was over, the girls were asked what they learned from the experience.

“I didn’t want to steer anyone wrong,” G.G. said.

“I liked being the leader; you were responsible,” Mya added.

The goal of the activity was to practice different forms of communication, work on trust and leadership, and to acknowledge that sometimes we all feel a little vulnerable. Miller smiled and nodded as the girls responded when the lesson was completed. Mission accomplished.

Horses are being utilized in mental health and educational therapies all over the country, and the Martha’s Vineyard Community Horse Center offers regular therapeutic demonstrations.

The horse center is located at Misty Meadows in West Tisbury. Visit mvhorsecenter.com for more information.