By Krystin Gollihue
Horses are herd animals. Their family structures are integral to their survival, and they are incredibly sensitive animals whose only protective mechanism when feeling unstable is to run. When horses have been through abusive training or spent time in stressful environments, their reactions to human instability can be that much more volatile. Yet, for many years, horses have been used as therapeutic animals for disaffected patients. There is no doubt that these therapies work, but the question remains as to why horses heal.
In many ways, the girls who come to CORRAL Riding Academy in Cary, North Carolina have a special relationship with the horses who board there: they also have no way to protect themselves from abuse, gang relationships, neglect, and trauma and have been missing a herd that will keep them safe. The horses at CORRAL are rescue animals whose past lives have often been abusive, too. Placing troubled teens with troubled animals could be a recipe for disaster, but at CORRAL, the girls learn the coping mechanisms and emotional intelligence it takes to not only heal from trauma and become successful adults, but to stabilize an animal whose first instinct is to run.
Joy Currey, Co-Founder and President, began CORRAL in 2008 after spending four years in New York City teaching in inner-city schools for Teach for America and obtaining her Master’s in education from Columbia University. She came back to North Carolina to pair her love of horses with her passion for working with teenagers. Since 2008, CORRAL has served over 100 young women who come from broken homes and who are in need of stability that they cannot get from home, peer groups, or school.
CORRAL receives referrals from community agencies like Human Services, local police departments, Juvenile Justice, Wake County Public Schools, and Haven House, another local youth and family services organization. Occasionally, girls come to CORRAL from self-referrals or mental health professionals, but no matter how they are referred, Currey says, they typically do not have “strong family structures and don’t have much community support. Sometimes they look for that structure in the wrong places,” like with gang activity or unhealthy coping mechanisms. When they arrive at the farm, they have a dependable, respectful, and safe family structure with the animals themselves, as well as the mental health and equine professionals on staff.
The foundation of CORRAL is its use of equine-assisted learning to support and engage young women. Equine-assisted learning is a therapeutic technique that acknowledges that horses reflect back to us who we are and how we are feeling in such a way that requires us to react and negotiate in partnership with the horse. The horses at CORRAL also come from broken backgrounds, and by using an introspective approach to growth, both the girls and the horses have a safe environment for stability. Horses “have so much to teach us about relationships and what healthy interdependence, empathy, and respect look like,” says Currey. When given the opportunity for safety and growth, the horses at CORRAL are able to both thrive and teach girls about healthy family hierarchy.
Pivotal to CORRAL’s learning and therapy technique is their partnership with equine specialists, mental health professionals, and researchers who help CORRAL understand and validate not only that their model works, but how and why it works. In the past 20 years, horses have been increasingly utilized for psychotherapy, and CORRAL has sought to figure out why this model works for healing young women, especially when the horses at the farm are constantly responding using their fight-or-flight instincts. “Anybody who’s interacted with a horse in their childhood will tell you it works, but there’s not a consensus around the methodology or practices,” so Currey and her team have enlisted people who can identify why and how horses create a safe environment for girls to work out emotional difficulties.
According to the data that CORRAL has helped collect, horses are “acutely aware of their environment in ways that other animals are not. They know changes in barometric pressure or if the leaf across the field moves.” In this acute awareness, horses also sense our heart rate and breathing rate and will react to a human’s emotional state more than other animals might. The research tells us that horses can be “an emotional barometer” so that the girls can see how their emotions directly impact others in a much more transparent way than in a traditional, clinical setting. At the farm, the girls get the opportunity to “make changes” to their emotional state, “and the horses will respond immediately and accordingly.” While the girls are learning how to control and manage their emotions, the horses are learning to trust human response.
Currey says that the most surprising part of her experience with CORRAL has been the support from the community. There are only 20 girls in the riding academy at any given time, and yet they have been able to successfully fundraise year after year. What surprises Currey the most is “how much the community is willing to invest in a life if they know that money is going to the youth. We feel responsible for that.” Stewardship is therefore very important to Currey and the volunteers at CORRAL, and part of the impact of partnering with equine and mental health care specialists as well as researchers is transparency and justification for their donors. The response that CORRAL has received has shown them how much the community believes the girls are worth it, but “if somebody is going to invest this much in a child, we need to be able to validate that it’s a useful investment. By having some specific research around our model, we have the opportunity to validate and duplicate our model.” This transparency creates validation for the very unique work that they do on the farm, and CORRAL’s partnerships with specialists and researchers allows their model to be rigorous, validated, and replicable for other organizations. Not only do nonprofits have to use data to inform their decisions, “we’ve got to, as a field, be transparent about what that data says.”
Joy Currey is the founder of the CORRAL Riding Academy. She joined Teach For America after finishing her BSBA at UNC-CH, teaching in inner-city schools for 4 years and then pursuing a Master’s in education at Columbia University. After finishing her Master’s, Currey became committed to changing the lives of children who were the most under-served by our educational system. Founded in 2008, CORRAL aims to change the trajectory of the most at-risk young people in our community through horses.
Krystin Gollihue is a current doctoral student in the Communication, Rhetoric, & Digital Media program at NC State University.