When consultant Terry Murray brought his performance enhancing strategies to horse barns, he noticed something about the female equestrians there.
Murray didn’t stay amazed for long. After a bit of research, he developed a program schools and other organizations could use to promote self-esteem in young girls and women. Called Smart GIRLS (Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy/ Girls Inspiring Relationship, Leadership and Service) the program uses horses to help girls and young women build the self-esteem they need to resist peer pressure, to form healthy, meaningful relationships and to develop empathy and leadership skills.
Currently, the Smart Girls program is in place at the Just For Girls Academy in Bradenton, Fl. According to Chief Executive Officer Becky Canesse, the single-gender education Charter School uses the program to complement regular academics by teaching students to relate to and care for horses. The goal is to help girls develop the confidence they need to defy cultural stereotypes, be self-reliant and to extend themselves to others in a positive way.
“These girls are no different than any one of us, in their lifetimes they’ll experience life challenges such as grief (and other situations ) that will challenge them,” Canesse said. “We wanted to give them the skills to help them cope, as well as to create a culture of empathy for themselves and other girls.”
Equine behaviorist Dr. Jennifer Williams Ph.D., is not surprised that horses can help teach those skills.
“Just look at a horse’s size – they’re so powerful – so just being able to work with such a large and powerful animal is in itself empowering,” Williams says. “Also just by lifting hay bales and feed bags you know you are strong – girls and women who do barn chores are confident that they can take care of themselves.”
At the same time, Williams believes that when it comes to goal-setting, horses interact with humans in a unique way.
“Horses respond to your level,” Williams says. “You grow, either in your skill in caring for the horses or as an equestrian, and the horse challenges you according to your level; when you progress, the horse challenges you a little more.”
Horse trainer Mary Midkiff agrees. She also believes that the relationship between horses and women is unique. As a result, horses help women grow by appealing to the nurturing character that most women instinctively share.
“Horses live in herds and they rely on members of the herd for their safety, but the horses we own rely us on for their safety and their everyday care, ” Midkiff says.”Women and girls are naturally nurturing and we bring that desire to nurture to (our work) the horses.”
That has been evident at the Academy as well, Canesse says. Afraid to approach a horse, one little girl pushed through her fear to move toward the animal. Later, the same girl lent her hand and experience to help another girl overcome fears of her own. Williams says that kind of experience helps girls build leadership skills.
“The kids new to the skill look up to the kids who have the skill,” Williams says. “That’s what leadership is all about.
While all that skill-building benefits those who directly work with the horses, what the girls learn in the corral has even father-reaching consequences, Canesse says.
“There needs to be more women in leadership roles, and (through the program) girls learn to think out of the box; they can understand ways they can be of service and they can be leaders,” she says. “(These skills) will help change generations.”