To help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, Windhorse began offering a class this summer for middle and high school youth with anxiety. The class included interactions with horses and taught strategies for coping with anxiety, including breathing techniques, meditation and journaling. The goal was for these youth to find relief from their anxiety through mutual understanding, support from peers and mentors, being in the presence of and learning how to work with our gentle horses, and learning skills they can use to alleviate their anxiety outside of the Windhorse setting.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders of childhood and adolescence. Nearly one in three adolescents (31.9%) will meet the criteria for any anxiety disorder by the age of 18. And anxiety among adolescents is on the rise: between 2007 and 2012, anxiety disorders in children and teens went up 20%. (American Academy of Pediatrics). Recent surveys conducted since the onset of Covid-19 in March indicate a marked increase in mental health concerns among teens. In a survey of 1500 teens conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the National 4-H Council in May, 7 out of 10 teenagers said they were struggling with their mental health in some way. More than half said they’d experienced anxiety, 45% said they’d felt excess stress, and 43% identified that they’d struggled with depression. (Huffpost Life, June 17, 2020)
At Windhorse, we have seen how being in the presence of horses and learning horsemanship skills that build confidence can alleviate anxiety in the youth we serve. Horses are uniquely positioned to help youth with anxiety. A horse’s heart rate is roughly half of a human heart rate. Therefore, their energetic vibration is much lower than ours. Being in the presence of a horse and being present with a horse can help us lower our energy and anxiety. Practicing meditation and breathing exercises with horses is a powerful way to cope with anxiety and is a critical component of the Windhorse curriculum. Furthermore, as prey animals, horses are extremely sensitive to their environments and must learn to cope with their own fears and trust humans for their safety and survival. Where humans often anxiously obsess, horses may react with fear, but after an assessment of the perceived threat, they will quickly return to the present moment. This is a powerful lesson for youth who are dealing with fear. In our class, kids have the opportunity to help a large and powerful prey animal face its fears by taking him or her over and around obstacles that it may be afraid of. The horses model a way through fear for these kids.
The class consisted of 8 middle or high school youth that self-described as being anxious or having anxiety. It met in six 2-hour sessions in the summer and was offered completely free to participants. In offering our pilot program this summer, Windhorse partnered with two professors in MSU’s College of Education, Health, and Human Performance (Drs. Christine Stanton and Lauren Dotson Davis) to conduct research to demonstrate the class’s effectiveness in reducing anxiety. We measured levels of anxiety before and after each session through student self-assessments as well as qualitative interviews with students. There were noteworthy improvements in participant anxiety levels after the implementation of this program. All but one participant experienced dramatic improvements (86%), and one participant experienced no change in anxiety scores.
Other research studies have demonstrated that equine-assisted learning (EAL) programs like Windhorse’s reduce cortisol levels (and therefore stress) in middle school youth. In a 2013 study, faculty at Washington State University tested the basal cortisol levels of youth before and after an 11-week EAL program. The results showed that youth in the classes had significantly lower levels of cortisol per waking hour at post-test compared to children who were wait-listed for the program.
Due to its clear success and the obvious need to help teens manage their anxiety, Windhorse plans to continue offering this class in 2021. We hope to help our community’s youth find some relief from their anxiety by working with horses, and give them tools they can use to manage their stress now and in the future. These students represent the future of our community, and the increased levels of stress they are experiencing as a result of Covid-19 should be a tremendous concern to all of us. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last and the stress levels of our kids will continue to escalate without interventions to help them learn how to cope during this crisis.