Beyond Adaptive Riding: The Benefits of Equine Facilitated Learning

Beyond Adaptive Riding: The Benefits of Equine Facilitated Learning

January 07, 2020

The most prestigious horse shows in the United States, including The Devon Horse and The Hampton Classic, assist in underwriting non-profit organizations. As attendees, do we truly  know the importance of the causes we are supporting?

For ten years, the Sonoma Horse Park has brought together top regional, national, and international riders for a designated World Championship Hunter Rider Event and AA horse show to support the Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center.  

International Derby winners receiving their awards from Giant Steps riders. Photo Credit Alden Corrigan.

This is a cause that, as adult equestrians, we all can relate to given the healing power of horses. Below is a touching account shared by Executive Director, Beth Porter that gives a small glimpse of the scope of the organization in how it assists war veterans, abused women and at-risk boys, among others.

“It’s the first time since I left Vietnam that I felt like someone had my back.”This was the response from a Vietnam veteran after successfully completing a join up with a Giant Steps horse. (A join up is a ground-based exercise in which a client interacts with a horse, and without words or equipment, convinces the horse to “join up” and to walk in tandem.) While the veteran had arrived as a somewhat rough, very reserved guy, after Milly chose to follow him around the arena, he turned to Milly, put his arms around her, and sobbed. This is the power of ground work.

Ground work clients collaborating to move a horse into a box without equipment

Ground work, more formally known as equine-facilitated learning (EFL), is programming in which ground-based exercises are used to explore issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, or grief. At Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center, we have successfully used ground work with veterans, children of incarcerated parents, families facing homelessness as well as clients who are not able to participate in our mounted lessons due to weight or other contraindications.

The success of EFL lies in the simple fact that horses meet our clients “where they are.”  Humans have lots of expectations of one another. Horses do not. They meet clients where they are, and reflect back human emotions with amazing insight. They teach clients that it is safe to be who they are, which helps them to become comfortable in their skin. They provide genuine interaction.

Seniors spending a happy moment with a horse

Further, as herd animals, horses read emotion quickly, and sense what is needed in a given situation. During an EFL session with a group of women who had experienced sexual trauma, one client appeared particularly shut-down. She entered the arena timidly, and one of the more playful horses in the arena approached her and gently nipped at her shirt. The woman backed up, but the horse repeated the behavior. After a few times, the woman finally pushed the horse back, and issued a firm “NO.” 

It could seem like a simple interaction, but for this woman, she had had an experience in which her boundaries had been violated, and she hadn’t been able to stand up for herself. When she processed the interaction outside of the arena, she started to cry, and said, “I didn’t know how I was letting the world run over me. I need to stand up for myself.”She saw that be creating an appropriate boundary with the horse, she was capable of creating appropriate boundaries in other situations. It was incredibly profound. 

Other times the interactions are more subtle. Some of our clients come to us from a residential program for at-risk boys. They have had rough lives, and arrive with tough exteriors. But at Giant Steps, our horses help the boys to lose that bravado. The boys learn that they cannot force a 1,000+ pound animal to do something it doesn’t want to. Instead, they must build a relationship with the horse. The instructor frequently tells them that horses are the best secret keepers, and so they talk with the horses while they groom them. Only the horses know what the boys share. 

As all equestrians know, the bond between human and horse is a deeply emotional one. Even the mere act of being at the barn brings happiness and calm. This is especially important for the clients we serve at Giant Steps, most of whom are children and adults living with disabilities as well as the groups mentioned above. In their lives, there are few opportunities to be in a place where they are not being judged for their appearances and abilities. We commonly hear that the hour spent at Giant Steps is the happiest hour of the client’s week. One parent even shared that her son only smiles when at Giant Steps.

Give Beyond the holidays.  
Share a gift by supporting
 Giant Steps Therapeutic Riding 
To support this valuable work, please visit
Or, if you need to find a gift for the person who has everything, make a gift in their name. Only 10% of Giant Steps’ budget comes from progress fees, and the organization offers over $100K in scholarship funding each year. (All military programming is offered free of charge.) So they could use your support. Or, if you would like to give of your time instead, visit There are many ways to be involved!


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