Hope Academy students use therapeutic horse riding as part of their recovery

CICERO – Leaders from Hope Academy and Fairbanks invited friends of Hope to a special event at Agape Riding Center on March 9 to see firsthand how Hope Academy students use horses to help in their recovery from substance abuse.

“This is a unique opportunity to see the experience students have with Agape’s horses every Monday,” said Barbara Elliott, president and CEO of Hope Academy and Fairbanks. “It’s very therapeutic and something they really enjoy.”

Founded in 1986, Agape is a nonprofit horse farm that offers therapeutic riding, leadership development and other activities. Hope Academy students have utilized the program for four years to help with building self-confidence and improving coping and social skills, among other proficiencies. This year’s program focuses on building employment skills.

Rachelle Gardner, chief operating officer of Hope Academy, admitted she initially thought the idea of bonding with horses as part of recovery was silly. She quickly changed her mind.

“The students love it. It’s very impactful for them in so many ways,” said Gardner, adding no other recovery high schools in the U.S. use a similar program.

Linda Hazzard, Agape’s program development and stewardship director, said the premise of their therapeutic riding program is for participants to find their own solutions while working with horses.

“It’s experiential learning,” she said. “When you’re with a horse, you’re kind of out of your comfort zone. Here you are with a 1200-pound partner that is totally honest. Horses have brains where everything is or isn’t, and they give you extremely honest feedback. It’s all about critical thinking, developing relationships.”

Other skills that are emphasized include teamwork, listening and adaptability. Guests at this event got hands-on experience in all these by working together and directly with horses during some activities.

“These are core things you’ll need no matter where you work,” Hazzard said. “Students aren’t necessarily learning about horses, but how to get a job, keep it and the skills they’ll need to thrive.”

But she noted learning these skills with horses tends to help you remember better.

“I have students who come back years later and recall specific sessions here,” Hazzard said.

Gardner said Agape is just one piece to the puzzle of helping teens overcome drug and alcohol abuse and addiction. She wished she could show the change in students from their initial interview to enroll at Hope Academy to where they are today.

“Their first reaction is usually, ‘I don’t want to be here and I’m not staying,’ but many of them keep coming back and decide to graduate from Hope Academy.”