Finding Focus and Living in the PresentNovember 7, 2019
For many, a quiet horseback ride on a wooded trail is inherently relaxing. It clears the mind, brings enjoyment of the outdoors, and provides a peaceful diversion. Now imagine your head filled with thoughts, thoughts that overlap and mount upon each other, until your mind is absolutely racing and you feel completely overwhelmed. The idea that you can slow yourself down and block out distractions enough to guide a horse seems impossible.
Emma Grace arrived at Green Chimneys at 12 years old, with challenges that made her unable to maintain safe behavior at home. She often felt frustrated and anxious, and then confused about why she was feeling this way. She also contended with numerous coinciding and distressing thoughts that would stay with her throughout the day, causing her to feel out of control.
Erin Rider, her social worker, recalls that many of their early sessions were spent simply helping Emma Grace to open up. Enter guinea pigs! The animals at Green Chimneys – and there are more than 200 of them – are often a great motivator for students who are reluctant to talk about their feelings and challenges. Emma Grace had always wanted a guinea pig and the pair in the farm science room at the Farm & Wildlife Center became the perfect way for Emma Grace to relax enough to start sharing about how she felt. In time, Erin was able to understand how Emma Grace was processing information and that what she needed help in was quieting her thoughts.
Erin felt incorporating Mindfulness into Emma Grace’s therapy would help her learn to find the calm and focus she needed. Mindfulness-based interventions have progressed through healthcare and into schools. Multiple studies of school-based initiatives have shown notable improvements in student attention span, emotional regulation, compassion, and adaptability. Erin introduced Mindful Riding into Emma Grace’s sessions partly because horses are acutely aware of their environment and immediately responsive, making them particularly good partners in this form of therapy designed to increase an individual’s awareness of the present moment.
Developing new interests and skills
For Emma Grace, mindful riding became an important grounding activity, allowing a sense of control over her thoughts. On horseback, Emma Grace and Erin would talk through what was occurring with the animal, notice its movements, and acknowledge what she was seeing along the trail as she rode. By focusing on just these elements, Emma Grace could practice living in the present, connecting her thoughts with her feelings and her behaviors in that particular moment. And she developed a great love of horses as well!
The Team Approach
“A key ingredient in Emma Grace’s success was Emma Grace, herself, and her family,” explains Erin. “The family worked hard together and was always ready to do whatever would help the most, and Emma Grace was ‘all in’ when it came to ways to work on and solve her challenges. If I came to her with a new idea, she was always willing to do what she needed to do to help herself and her family.”
Also while at Green Chimneys, Emma Grace pursued her passion for singing and theatrical performance, starring in campus productions as Veruca Salt in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the genie in Aladdin; and the title role in Charlie Brown. She also became skilled in American Sign Language and hopes to become an interpreter.
Green Chimneys’ philosophy is based on the belief that if children are given a chance to explore and discover their inherent strengths in a safe and structured nature-based environment, their self-esteem, compassion, coping and social skills will improve. Through numerous activities at the farm and in school, and great support, Emma Grace has paved a new path for herself — a win for all involved!
Mindfulness in Motion
Emma Grace’s experience with mindfulness sessions on horseback was featured last spring in a Fox 5 NY News story. See how students’ emotional needs are being met at Green Chimneys with the help of animals; watch the story: