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Equine studies gives back to tribal communities

By Hannah Gill for Tri-State Livestock News

At the Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town, North Dakota students are learning that horsemanship was an integral part of their native culture and discovering how to give back to their communities through equine related wellness activities and through equine therapy. NHSC, tribally chartered by the MHA Nation of the Fort Berthold Reservation, is the first tribal college to offer a degree in equine studies, with the first graduates from the program in 2020.

“We look for programming that can restore cultural connections, which of course horses are, and then things that get kids out and active and reconnecting with land nature so that was kind of the start of the program,” says Lori Nelson, land grant director for the college and equine faculty member.

In 2014, the college partnered with the tribe who had recently purchased a property near Parshall, North Dakota, called the Healing Horse Ranch, to hold Family Riding Nights at the arena, which turned out to be huge successes, spurring the college onto offering a two credit course called Horses and Holistic Health.



“It was just a course on how horses could assist in providing therapy and culture – based wellness services to overcome risk factors and health disparities in the communities,” Nelson says.

Then the program started offering a basic horsemanship class that was so successful, they added an intermediate horsemanship class, and the program continued to expand from there. There was so much interest, that faculty decided it was time to create a two-year program.



After looking at North Dakota State University and Dickinson State University’s equine programs to make sure the course numbering was similar so that courses could easily transfer, they began to build the program.

“We are a tribal college though, so we do have courses that you can’t take anywhere else,” Nelson says.

For example, the Horses and Holistic Health class, or Great Plains Indian Horsemanship, which talks about the cultural significance of the horse and the connection that the people had with their horses, how they trained them and how they lived, moved and breathed with the horses.

“From there, we decided we wanted to go more of a natural horsemanship approach because when we looked at how native people historically connected to the horse, we thought that was the closest match we could find to honor the traditional ways,” Nelson says. “It has more to do with the connection, the relationship, the psychology of the horse and how we communicate through body language.”

Today, three years after the degree officially launched, the program allows students to specialize in either natural horsemanship for those who want to focus more on the horse training route, or they can specialize in equine assisted services, where therapeutic riding and equine assisted mental health and learning are the focus. Students can choose one, or the other, or both, but regardless if they choose either route, students are still required to take some classes in the specialization they choose not to focus on.

The equine assisted services specialty is taught by Katie Oakland, who runs TR 4 Heart & Soul, a non-profit corporation that provides therapeutic riding for adults and children with disabilities, learning, speech, and behavioral challenges in Bismarck, North Dakota. Oakland leases horses to the program and also comes to the college one day a week for in-person lab days at the Healing Horse Ranch, which the program opens to locals with disabilities, as well as to the any K-12 students that the schools think would benefit from time with the horses.

“We could offer therapeutic riding all day every day for a number of tribal entities, but as a college, we can’t do that so we decided we really had to create an equine studies program and train our own people so that they can then go out and provide that programming,” Nelson says.

Another class that is unique to NHSC is called trauma focused equine assisted learning, developed as a response to the need for healing from historical trauma when so many native communities are still dealing with the effects from boarding schools, reservation acts or loss of land.

“In our area in particular, it was the building of the Garrison Dam which flooded out a big portion of the reservation,” Nelson says. “And there is a lot of contemporary trauma like heart disease, diabetes, drugs and a lot of trauma that occurs in a lot of the students that we serve so the class was really created to meet that need and help our students not only deal with some trauma they may have in their lives but also teach them the skills and how we can utilize horses to help us heal from that.”

Nelson explains that when a person goes through trauma, especially at a young age, it particularly effects brain development, so when people grow up in trauma, they tend to get stuck in the “fight or flight” part of the brain, which is very similar to how a horse brain functions.

“So, we see this kind of correlation that people who are dealing with the effects of trauma, when they connect with a horse for the first time feel understood and its really amazing to see this connection happen,” Nelson says.

In addition, the brain being a muscle, can also help overcome trauma through rhythm and through building a relationship, and horses are the most organic way for both of those to occur.

“With the background of natural horsemanship with equine assisted services together, we really feel that we create a student that is really prepared to serve their communities because they’re not just learning the therapeutic riding, they’re also learning the psychology and the relationship of the horse,” Nelson says. “And when we merge those two areas we get a really strong individual who understands the horse, the safety and relationship building there, and then can provide therapy and mental health and learning services to their communities.”


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