Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Outside of a Horse Is Good for the Inner-City Kid

Why Close Encounters
With Animals Soothe Us

Compton Jr. Posse in Los Angeles, which brings inner-city
children and horses together, reveals the therapeutic
power of communing with fellow sentient beings.

“I tried soccer, which I hated. I tried track, and there was just mean people. I tried tennis, same thing, mean people. With horses, there still are mean people, but I don’t care. Because I have my horse right next to me.” Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times
Chapter 3 of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” culminates with Alice’s coming to a wood “where things have no names.” Immediately upon entering, she is unable to identify anything around her, knows not what to call herself or the surrounding trees or the strangely fearless fawn that soon approaches. Mutually enchanted, the two commence walking along together in utter peace and calm, Alice’s arm cradling the fawn as they go. The assuaging grace of this trance is broken only upon coming to a clearing where name recognition returns and the startled fawn bounds away in fright, leaving Alice bereft and forlorn.Carroll’s parable about the distancing effects of human consciousness and language has particular resonance at a time when close encounters with nonhuman animals are increasingly being sought to heal our psychic and social woes. It is, in effect, a kind of wood with no names into which animal therapy allows its participants entrance. At equine-therapy programs like Compton Jr. Posse in Los Angeles (pictured here), inner-city adolescents find a refuge from drugs and street-gang culture by developing equestrian skills and learning to regard the knowing gazes of 1,000-plus-pound horses and guide their beguiling power. In return for striving in school, the program’s participants, ranging in age from 8 to 18, are taught to ride horses, groom them and clean their stables. These experiences keep them within what Mayisha Akbar, the founder of Compton Jr. Posse, calls the horse’s “personal circle.” Horses have a profound effect on humans. “Whether they have a physical handicap or an emotional handicap or a mental handicap, when you’re around a horse,” Akbar says, “the energy is so powerful that it tunes the body up. That’s why there are so many therapeutic riding programs, because they do see physical changes in people who are around horses.”

Eniko Barber, Age 9

“We both trust each other. So if I feel scared, he will feel scared, and he might stop sometimes. And then if I feel confident, he feels confident and he would jump for me.”

— Interviews by Hallie Bateman
Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Kenneth Player, Age 14 (Left)

“Most people, they don’t have the horse environment. They say, ‘Ah, I don’t want to ride a horse.’ They’re scared. They probably just see horses on TV and that’s it. When they actually learn about them and start doing the things you can do with horses, they go, ‘Oh, now I want to ride them.’ ”

Assata Allison, Age 18 (Right)

“I have seen the kids change. The boys that were once loud and rowdy, they come here, and well, they are hyped from school, but they come here and they’re calm and they want to talk to the horses, and I’ve noticed with the girls also, they’ve become more open.”
Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Asia Carter-Thomas, Age 10“I feel like there’s a piece of my heart missing if I don’t ride a horse. Just the feeling that you get when you ride and you trot and you jump. It feels like you are soaring through the sky and you don’t have a care in the world. Reality can’t even catch up behind you. You’re just free. Until you get off the horse, of course. Then reality catches up to you so fast that you’re stunned and shocked.” Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Something extraordinary occurs when we’re in the presence of a fellow sentient being. When we let go of language’s tacit conceptual constraints and judgments, we allow ourselves a kind of time travel toward our own inner animal. Science is revealing the ways that the physiology of our psychology can be found across species: the common neuronal structures and attendant nerve wirings that we share in varying measures with a startling array of both vertebrates and invertebrates, including fellow primates, elephants, whales, parrots, bees and fruit flies. Animal therapy makes us aware of this cross-species interconnectivity on the purest, subconscious level.

It has been established that the tactile element alone in animal therapy releases endorphins, so called feel-good hormones that counteract the trauma hormones of adrenaline and cortisol. But neuroscience is also revealing the ways in which the brain’s neural networks can be both experientially marred and therapeutically mended. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, among many others, have demonstrated the brain’s “neuroplasticity” by showing that the mere act of meditation and thinking compassionate thoughts can physically alter and enhance the wiring of the brain’s empathic pathways. Felicity de Zulueta, a psychiatrist who worked with victims of extreme trauma, including former child soldiers in Uganda, at Maudsley Hospital in London, told me that the healing of trauma has physical correlatives in the brain just as assaults on our psyches do, forging new neuronal connections that bypass the traumatically scarred regions.

Nathan Williams-​Bonner, Age 22“I don’t know if you’ve seen ‘Avatar.’ It’s like when you connect the hair to the thing and they become one, in a way. In the moment of riding in the ring, that moment when the horse is so focused and listening to everything you ask. It’s like that, in a way. Full-blown connection, your horse is listening to every response that you do.” Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Adrina Player, age 10

“I’m just doing flat classes and equitation right now, but I’m working on jumping. I think it’s cool and it’s like you’re flying up in the air.”
Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Gabrielle Lashley, age 11“You need confidence and concentration. Concentration to control your horse and make sure he or she is O.K., and then confidence to get on a horse, because without confidence, you don’t want to get out there.” Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

The degree of neurogenesis stimulated by animal therapy, and how lasting the effects might be, is difficult to measure. But therapists involved in such programs speculate that their benefits actually derive from shutting down for a time some of our brain’s higher and sometimes cacophonous cognitive functions. It seems akin to a phenomenon observed in recent neuroimaging studies of the effects of psychedelics on the brain’s of people with severe depression. 

Rather than augmenting higher-level consciousness, a substance like psilocybin actually shuts down our brain’s ego center, which, under duress, can confer crippling fear, guilt and insecurity, and instead allows people access to their unfettered emotions and sense of childlike wonder. Allows them, in other words, a mind-altering walk in the wood with no names.

Leslie Martin, a trauma-recovery specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs, told me a story about a former Marine in her care whom she was having great difficulty getting to open up about his inner turmoil and daily struggles. A strapping figure with a hardened mien to match, he was sitting one day in front of Martin’s desk, diffident and deflective as usual, when from behind him, Martin’s dog, a large boxer-shepherd mix named Cassie, approached and settled her head on the Marine’s arm.
“He looked down,” Martin recalls, “and she just gave him a little lick, and suddenly I couldn’t stop him from crying. Just that connection set free all of this stuff inside of him. She was the catalyst. There’s that ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ thing that happens. That’s real.”

Morganne Craig, age 9“If you kind of have the same personality as the horse, you two kind of have a good match together. The trainer will put you with a certain horse because, like Lanie, she’s very dramatic, and I’m dramatic, that’s why we’re such a good pair. And she’s fast, and I’m fast. Like when I’m dancing, I need to learn to slow down, and when she’s cantering, she needs to learn to slow down.” Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Zereeseis Player, age 12 (left)

“They taught me how to be respectful, they taught me how to listen, they’ve taught me not to be disobedient to others, and treat people like they want to be treated.”

Farrah Akbar, age 8 (right, founder Mayisha Akbar’s granddaughter)

“The first time I rode a horse when I was 3. We had a pony at our ranch. His name was Bugsy. I got on Bugsy, he was going too fast, I fell off and got right back on. I would say, if you’ve never seen a horse or touched a horse, just touch it. Because if you touch it, then you’ll feel the soul.”
Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times

Zoie Brogdon, age 12“To me, horses are not like a pet but more like a team. We work together, we get everything done, and we have fun. It’s like a partnership.” Credit Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times
Ilona Szwarc is a Polish-born photographer based in Los Angeles and a recent M.F.A. graduate of the Yale University School of Art in photography. 

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for the magazine. He last wrote about traumatized orphaned parrots and war veterans healing one another.

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