Indigenous girls get to know Dundee (left) at Cartier Farms near Prince Albert, Sask. in summer 2019. (Photo courtesy of Cartier Farms)

Topics: UCC in Focus | Indigenous

Indigenous youth explore heritage at equine program

A United Church initiative pairs young people with horses to build skills, make friends and heal

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Last summer, a group of 10 Indigenous girls came together for a week at Cartier Farms, just north of Prince Albert, Sask., to connect with horses — and with their own heritage and spirituality.

The idea came from Plains Presbytery, and organizers chose equine-assisted learning because of the strong ties between many First Nations and horses. Participants do team-building and leadership exercises alongside an animal, like guiding it through an obstacle course hands-free. The horses are especially good teachers because of their sensitivity to the non-verbal cues of their human companions.

The program is run by the Indigenous Ministries Circle and supported by the Healing Fund, a United Church grant for initiatives to help Indigenous communities heal from the ongoing trauma caused by the residential school system. Organizers received almost $13,000 when they started the program in 2018, and other funding comes from donations.

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Having gender-specific weeks allows the youth to have candid conversations as they explore their cultural identity, says Springwater Hester-Meawassige, youth leadership co-ordinator of the United Church’s Indigenous Ministries Circle. They’re able to ask difficult questions, work on themselves and spend less time trying to impress each other, she says.

During the week, participants also go to sweat-lodge ceremonies, make hand drums, pick medicinal herbs and do “standard camp stuff” like having campfires and playing games.

“I felt really welcomed,” says Skylar Forsberg, 15, one of 2019’s participants. She attended along with her sister Krista, 17. They were adopted by white parents and raised with an awareness of their culture, but their mother encouraged them to attend the camp to further that understanding and connection to their Indigenous heritage.

Both girls loved their interactions with the horses each day and remain in close contact with their fellow participants. “It helps a lot with identity and understanding where you come from,” Krista says.

This story first appeared in Broadview’s April 2020 issue with the title “Horses and heritage.”

Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today.

Glynis Ratcliffe is Broadview's senior writer.

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