Horsemanship Program at Montana Academy
The horsemanship program plays a vital role at Montana Academy. Our students’ engagement with horses has a much deeper impact than simply going for a horseback ride. In many ways the horse program provides an experience that compliments therapy and teaches students much about themselves.
Kathy Fox, who is one of the most esteemed horse ladies in our valley, oversees the horse program at Montana Academy. Kathy raises and trains quarter horses on her ranch outside of Kalispell. She also is in high demand in Flathead Valley as a riding teacher and horse trainer. So, we have been blessed to have her as our horse guru for these last ten years at Montana Academy. Students can participate in the program once they have settled in at the school and have submitted a proposal to their treatment team. Students participate in the program three afternoons a week and also take on the responsibility of feeding the horses in the morning and evenings.
Over the years we have collected a lovely herd of energetic Missouri fox trotters . We find that fox trotters are not only gentle, and willing partners, but they also are fun to ride as they glide along the mountain trails in a lovely running walk
Kathy starts all students in the indoor arena with the fundamentals of groundwork. Before students ever get on a horse, they start building a connection with their horse in the safety of the indoor arena. Kathy finds this to be essential even with students who are experienced riders. Seeing how a horse acts on the ground is an important safety measure as well as an opportunity for Kathy to judge whether or not a horse is sound and to assess whether or not the horse and rider are connecting with one another. Once students gain competence with groundwork, Kathy teaches them the fundamentals of riding. Students who have had considerable experience riding become teaching assistants, helping those who have little to no horse experience. Students begin riding in the indoor arena, but soon gain the competence to ride outside on a network of old logging roads permeating the million acres surrounding the school.
Kathy takes care to match horses with students in terms of skill level and personality. Nick, one of our most experienced riders, tried out several horses before both Nick and Kathy agreed that Promise, a large chestnut fox trotter, would be the ideal match. They seemed to understand one another and both had similar levels of energy.
Horses become loving companions for many students on campus. I remember how Abbey, a slender redhead with early attachment issues, loved Rafton, one of our first horses on the ranch. Abbey soon realized how Rafton would pick up on her emotions. He felt her anxiety and would immediately respond by tossing his head and prancing instead of walking calmly. Rafton let Abbey know when she had to let go of emotions, to relax her arms, to hold lightly on the reins. Rafton and Abbey respected and connected with one another. Not all students related to Rafton. He took advantage of riders who didn’t set limits and let him take charge. He also wanted riders who made him feel safe when approaching a cow or crossing a creek. Horses and riders need to build mutual trust–matching horse and student is essential.
Students, who engage in the horse program, learn about themselves. Horses provided a non-judging relationship with feedback about how the rider is doing along with the reward of being so closely connected to a beautiful and powerful living creature. What a splendid way to understand you are not alone in the world–it’s not all about you, and there is a world much larger than yourself to enjoy through closely shared relationships.
Horses add richness to our lives at Montana Academy–staff and students alike!