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Horse as Healer:

posted by Horse Owner Today    |   April 15, 2011 18:21

exerpt from:


Horse as Healer: An Examination of Equine Assisted Learning in the Healing of First Nations Youth from Solvent Abuse1



Canada is an international leader in providing residential treatment to First

Nations youth who abuse solvents. Of its 8 treatment centres, 5 have been

in operation for over a decade, a laudable achievement given that internationally

most centres close down within the same year they are established

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(Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2003). The

Canadian centres are linked through the national Youth Solvent Addiction

Committee (YSAC) network. The network provides theoretical direction for

the treatment provided at the centres and strength-based counselor training

opportunities, emphasizing a culture-based resiliency model. One of the

YSAC treatment facilities, the White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre,

has expanded its programming to include Equine Assisted Learning (EAL).

White Buffalo has partnered with the Cartier Equine Learning Center to offer


In this article, we discuss how YSAC’s culture-based model of resiliency

is put into practice at White Buffalo through the example of EAL. The

application of this model to a horse-assisted learning program is a unique

contribution to the literature. YSAC has expanded the Western concept of

resiliency, which focuses on the individual, to include both the individual

and community. Within a Western worldview, several resiliency dynamics

are associated with an individual, including insight (which is internal) and

external relationships. Within a First Nation’s worldview, an individual is at

the same time their inner spirit (internal) and relations with their collective

community. Resiliency is “. . . a balance between the ability to cope with stress

and adversity [inner spirit] and the availability of community support” (Dell,

Hopkins, and Dell, 2005, p. 5). This definition is operationalized at White

Buffalo through traditional First Nations teachings alongside such programs

as EAL, with specific attention paid in this case to the historic and contemporary

role of the horse within the lives of First Nations people. Both concepts

which comprise YSAC’s definition of resiliency — the inner spirit of an

individual and their community support — are illustrated using the example

of EAL from the intersecting perspectives of White Buffalo’s volatile solvent

abuse program, Cartier Equine Learning Center’s EAL program, and Elders’


Using the example of EAL, we also highlight in this article how YSAC’s

culture-based model of resiliency and a Western health promotion approach

are complementary. Both emphasize the importance of the individual and

the larger community in understanding and responding to health needs. It

follows that there is much to be learned from YSAC’s holistic approach to

treatment and healing that can be of assistance to both First Nations and

Western health promotion responses to substance abuse. A limitation of this

article is that we discuss the theoretical intersections between a culture-based

model of resiliency, EAL, and health promotion, but we do not test them em84

© Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 6(1) 2008

pirically. We conclude the article with five key research suggestions as next

steps to further our understanding of EAL, and in particular as it relates to

First Nations community health.


Volatile Solvent Abuse


According to a 2005 report commissioned by the World Heath Organization,

the deliberate inhalation of volatile solvents and aerosols2 is an increasing

global problem. In Canada, attention to volatile solvent abuse (VSA) among

Indigenous youth was publicly recognized with a widely played media clip in

1993 of Innu youth in Davis Inlet, Newfoundland getting high by sniffing gasoline.

In 1996, a major response to VSA was undertaken on the part of First

Nations people and Health Canada’s First Nations and Inuit Health Branch;

several residential youth solvent treatment centres were established.

Volatile solvent abuse is the deliberate inhalation of fumes or vapours given

off from a substance for its intoxicating and mind-altering effect (National

Drug Abuse Information Centre, 1998). Volatile solvents are a large and diverse

group of chemical compounds located in hundreds of household and

industrial products, including paint thinner, glue, gasoline, and correctional

fluid (Dell and Beauchamp, 2006; Howard et al., 2008). The health effects of

inhaling can be acute, and include frostbite and burns (Albright et al., 1999;

Janezic, 1997), brain and nerve cell damage (Basu et al., 2004; Dewey, 2002),

and sudden heart failure (Ballard, 1998; Wille and Lambert, 2004). The social

effects are equally destructive, and include poor academic performance (Basu

et al., 2004; Carroll et al., 1998), decreased mental wellness (Kurtzman et al.,

2001; Mosher et al., 2004), spiritual harm (Etsten, 2005; Dell and Graves,

2005) and problem behaviour, such as delinquency (Best et al., 2004; Jacobs

and Ghodse, 1998).

The rate of VSA among First Nations and Inuit youth, and youth generally,

is not well documented in Canada. The most recent national survey on

substance use and abuse among Canadians 15 and older found that 1.9% of

males and 0.7% of females reported using a volatile solvent in their lifetime

(Adlaf, Begin, and Sawka, 2005). This is an increase from the 1994 reported

2. “A solvent is a chemical in a liquid or semi-solid state that dissolves other substances (e.g., nail polish

remover). The word volatile refers to the rapid evaporation of chemicals in products to a gas or vapour

when they are exposed to air. . . . Aerosol and spray cans contain a product (e.g., shaving cream) under

the pressure of a propellant. Propellants are typically solvents and are used to dissolve the content of

the can so it can be sprayed” (Dell and Beauchamp 2006, p. 1). Volatile solvent abuse is commonly

referred to as inhalant abuse, since inhaling is the mode of ingestion.

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lifetime solvent use rate of 1.2% of males and 0.3% of females (Canadian

Centre on Substance Abuse, 1994). Canadian research indicates that the majority

of solvent abusers are between the ages of ten and seventeen, with peak

use between twelve and fifteen (Adlaf and Paglia, 2003; Barcelo et al., 1998;

Youth Solvent Addiction Committee, 2004). Volatile solvents are often the

first mood-altering substance used by children and youth because they are

readily available, inexpensive, and easily concealed (Basu et al., 2004; Wille

and Lambert, 2004).

Research and practice have indicated higher rates of VSA among youth experiencing

disenfranchised life conditions. This has been documented among

street youth, inner city youth, and some First Nations and Inuit youth living

in select rural and remote areas of the country (Research Group on Drug

Use, 2004; Manitoba Office of the Children’s Advocate, 2003). VSA among

First Nations and Inuit youth has been linked to high rates of poverty, boredom,

loss of self-respect, unemployment, family breakdown, and poor social

and economic structures (Dell et al., 2003). These issues are connected to

the historic impact of residential schooling, systemic racism and discrimination,

and multigenerational losses of land, language, and culture. For example,

a 2003 report from Pauingassi First Nation in Manitoba revealed that

half of the children on the reserve who were under 18 years abused solvents

(Manitoba Office of the Children’s Advocate, 2003).

Given the damaging biopsychosocial and spiritual effects of VSA, and the

myriad of impoverished social conditions surrounding chronic use, the treatment

of youth who abuse solvents has largely been ineffective. The literature

suggests that residential treatment programs for inhalant abuse rarely survive

for a multitude of reasons, including the degree of difficulty that treating solvent

users entails (Beauvais, 1990; Dinwiddie, 1994). Solvent abusing youth

have been typecast as “out of control” and “untreatable.” It has been widely

accepted that brain damage from ingesting solvents is extensive and irreversible,

though recent research (Cairney et al., 2002) and practice (YSAC, 2008)

have refuted this.


Residential Treatment for Volatile Solvent Abuse in Canada


In 1996, the decision to build several residential treatment facilities for volatile

solvent abuse created significant unease about which model of recovery

they should operate under. There was a dearth of research on effective treat86

© Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 6(1) 2008

ment approaches for youth VSA on which to draw, and conflicting theories

about youth substance abuse residential treatment in general (Dell and

Graves, 2005). There was some consensus among clinicians and researchers,

however, that residential treatment can be helpful for individuals who

have special needs or require intensive programming (Jumper-Thurman and

Beauvais, 1997). In response, the emerging solvent treatment facilities in

Canada formed the national Youth Solvent Addiction Committee (YSAC) as

a mechanism to develop an overarching culture-informed approach to treatment,

and to share individual centre successes and lessons to treating youth

who abuse solvents. YSAC’s mission is to provide culturally appropriate,

therapeutic, inhalant treatment and community-intervention programming

for First Nations youth and their families. YSAC comprises treatment centre

Directors, field experts, and representatives of Health Canada’s First Nations

and Inuit Health Branch.

In line with the literature and understanding, the majority of youth who

enter into the YSAC programs have extensive histories of mental, physical,

social, and spiritual abuse (YSAC, 2008). Focusing on the cultural foundation

that the centres share, and their commitment to a strength-based approach

to treatment and healing, YSAC guided the centres’ early development with

the concept of resiliency, that is, how well a person can recover or bounce

back in spite of significant stress. YSAC began with the work of Wolin and

others on the seven resiliency dynamics (Wolin and Wolin, 1998; Resiliency

Center, 2002). These dynamics were found to coincide with parallel conceptions

of traditional teachings and holistic healing within First Nations3 culture

(Banai, n.d.) (see Table 1).

Key to YSAC’s development of a culture-based model of resiliency was understanding

the role of an individual’s inner spirit; inner spirit is the “motivator

and animator of one’s life” (Dell, Hopkins, and Dell 2005, p. 5) and that

it is nurtured through traditional First Nations teachings and healing. Within

YSAC’s model, inner spirit and community cannot be disentangled from one

another, as is commonly done within a Western worldview. An individual’s

inner spirit is intertwined with their family, community, and the land and

cannot be understood apart from them. YSAC’s holistic concept of resiliency

is suggested to “assist youth in uncovering their inner spirit [and] strengthen

their spirit by drawing on available community resources” (Dell, Hopkins,

and Dell, 2005, p. 5) (see Figure 1).

3. Anishinabe teachings.

Horse as Healer 87


Colleen Anne Dell, Research Chair in Substance Abuse, Department of Sociology

University of Saskatchewan*

Darlene Chalmers, Faculty of Social Work

University of Regina

Debra Dell, Coordinator, Youth Solvent Addiction Committee

Ernie Sauve, Executive Director, White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre

Sturgeon Lake First Nation

Tamara MacKinnon, Program Director, Cartier Equine Learning Centre


1. Contributions: This article is a collaborative community-based effort of the identified authors, with

Ernie Sauve representing Elders Herb, Gladys, and John (a pseudonym), staff and members of the

Board of Directors of the White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre, and Tamara MacKinnon

representing the staff of the Cartier Equine Learning Centre.

Acknowledgement: Two of the authors of this article, Darlene and Colleen, were driving from Saskatoon

to Sturgeon Lake First Nation to meet with two of the Elders who are trusted with providing spiritual

and cultural guidance at the White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre. As they passed a roadside

cross (referred to by Darlene as a shrine) to mark the passing of an individual(s) through a motor

vehicle accident, they began a discussion that observed how these “shrines” would not exist to the

extent they do if there were no vehicles, and, in place, horses were once again the primary mode of

transportation. When their morning meeting with the Elders was coming to a close, a final thought

was shared by one of the Elders, Herb. He said that the iron horse (i.e., automobile) has contributed

its share to the illness (e.g., materialism) that plagues society today. Another of the Elders, Gladys, reflected

that all is interconnected in life, and everything (e.g., seasons) comes full circle. In many ways,

this article represents a piece of the circle of life for each of the authors. We are happy to be able to

share this with the reader, and are grateful for what we have learned in the process.

82 © Pimatisiwin: A Journal of Aboriginal and Indigenous Community Health 6(1) 2008