The word “magic” comes up quite a bit when talking to Jenna Rovira, an instructor and development director at the Marion Therapeutic Riding Association in Ocala.
For nearly four decades, the association has helped those with physical and mental challenges build self-esteem and independence through horseback riding. Four years ago, it added a program called Equine Experience to work specifically with foster kids and at-risk youth.
Jenna volunteered while working as a social worker, but now is a full-time instructor. She has seen startling breakthroughs with kids from troubled backgrounds when they make a connection with a horse.
“With a lot of people, and especially with foster children, it’s pretty difficult to connect with other humans when you’ve been hurt by so many,” she explains. “Horses don’t judge you. They don’t have preconceived notions that a lot of people have toward other people, so you get a clean slate.”
She says horses are also excellent mirrors of human behavior. They can sense what a person is feeling and react accordingly.
“Horses respond to your energy,” Jenna says. “They absorb what you’re feeling, and you’ll see it reflected in how they react towards you.”
Kids participating in the Equine Experience bond with a single horse. They learn everything from how to care for and groom a horse to how to ride one. But overall, it’s about building a relationship.
Participants start by learning how to approach a horse, introduce themselves, then “catch” the horse. That, it turns out, is the basis for everything else.
“Catching the horse is an important part not only in developing their horsemanship and handling skills, but it plays a key role with the at-risk youth in that it teaches them to recognize, observe and reflect on body language—both their own body language and that of the horse, which we then can correlate or translate to real-life relationships,” Jenna explains.
Many of the kids have been traumatized and are dealing with anger, depression or a host of other emotions.
“If you’re bringing the weight of the world that is making you angry or upset and that vibe is coming off of you, that horse is not going to be overly eager for you to come over and catch them,” Jenna says.
The kids often become frustrated, ending up mad or in tears when the horse won’t allow them to come close. But that is where the breakthrough begins. Jenna and the other instructors simply encourage the kids to sit down, relax and not worry about approaching the horse.
“A lot of times, once they’re not focused on the task and start relaxing, the horse will inevitably come over,” Jenna says. “That horse the whole time has been observing them, watching and trying to figure out what’s going on.”
As the child focuses on touching the horse and making a connection, Jenna says what happens next is pretty special.
“You get the magic of the horse looking into them, the breathing, the observation between person and horse,” she says. “The connection almost always develops itself.”
Instructors will go back and talk to the kids about why the horse may have been reluctant to let them come over initially. They will discuss what the kids may have been feeling or projecting, and how they may have made the horse feel when they tried to approach with those emotions.
The kids soon start processing and relating that to dealing with people.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I guess if somebody approaches me like that and I don’t warm up to them I’m probably going to respond back all snappy and full of attitude or maybe disrespectfully,’” she says.
Jenna shares the story of a teenager who was bullied at school and had other issues that affected how she interacted with others. She bonded well with one horse, then Jenna exposed her to other, more challenging horses to broaden her perspective.
At one point, the teenager made an interesting observation.
“She said, ‘I guess this is kind of like people. The horse doesn’t mean to be difficult; she just doesn’t understand me, and I don’t understand her yet. Maybe I need to look at people like that and try to reflect on what they’re thinking of me, or what I’m bringing to the table that might be influencing how I’m thinking of them, before I respond,’” Jenna relates.
Jenna says examples of growth are endless. The kids not only learn how to relate to others, they build self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment in themselves.
As a social worker who spent time working for a residential foster program, Jenna says she has seen breakthroughs with horses that might have taken much longer in one-on-one or group counseling sessions.
“I cannot advocate enough for it,” she says. “For me, it made such an impression with the kids we were bringing here, and some pretty difficult kids that had really been through a lot.”
Jenna is one of three certified therapeutic riding instructors under Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International who work with foster kids and at-risk youth. They also work with adults in a traditional therapeutic riding program geared toward helping with physical, emotional or cognitive disabilities.
The association also has a program that helps veterans, called Freedom Reins.
Kids are referred to Equine Experience from a host of agencies, including Kids Central, Camelot Community Care, Hands of Mercy Everywhere, the Arnette House, The Centers and local pediatricians.
As a nonprofit therapeutic riding center provider, the association is funded through grants, fundraising efforts and donations. The horses are donated and come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have had careers in showing and jumping, and some are trail horses. One came from the sport of endurance riding. Those different backgrounds offer unique benefits.
“We’ve got horses here that are like bomb-proof, dead quiet that you can put your grandbaby on and trust them that everything’s going to be all right,” Jenna says. “But we’ve also got some horses that maybe are a bit more challenging because for some of our challenging youth, especially, you want to keep pushing them, you want them to be able to progress.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the association was forced to stop on-site horseback riding, but held virtual and drive-thru events to maintain a connection. This summer, there were some one-on-one and sibling ground sessions that involved such things as bathing and grooming the horses.
Full riding classes resume in September.
Jenna is excited to get back to changing lives by connecting kids and horses.
“It’s just so amazing that you see these tough-edged kids that come back around and start acting like, what in my mind, I think a kid is supposed to act like,” Jenna says. “They become bubbly, start asking questions, they’re feeling accomplished.
“With that accomplishment, I think comes a lot more curiosity. It’s like you get to see them come back to life again. I think that’s magic.”