Horse Therapy Helping Break the Stigma of Sexual Abuse
Mary Annette Pember
The old warrior waited patiently for us. Although his magnificent regalia was heavy and it was hot in the practice barn, he showed no signs of irritation. He stood erect, with great dignity, stamping his feet a bit when he saw us approach.
The horse was ready for the duty of ceremony, ready to bear whatever spirits needed unburdening.
Greg Grey Cloud walked up to greet the horse. The big man’s voice was unexpectedly gentle as he spoke to the animal. Outwardly, Grey Cloud could be described as gruff. In his sweat-stained t-shirt and well-worn cowboy boots, he was the very picture of a hard-working, no-nonsense ranch foreman. But standing close to the old warrior, Grey Cloud seemed to change. His bearing softened, and he seemed to grow vulnerable as he stroked the horse’s neck and prepared to share his secrets.
The horse stood quietly as Grey Cloud spoke, hardly moving until the man finished his story. Red Clouds is one of several rescue horses who serve as equine therapists at the Sinte Gleska University’s (SGU) ranch on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Red Clouds is a member of Sunka Wakan Oyate, the horse nation. For Lakota people, Red Clouds is more than a horse, he is a relative, therefore his role as healer and therapist in the Tiwahi Glu Kini Pi (Bringing the Family Back to Life in the Lakota language) mental health program is especially potent. Reclaiming the relationship with the Sunka Wakan Oyate goes far beyond the benefits of therapy. For the Oceti Sakowin peoples, Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, the horse nation is an important bearer of culture and spirituality and represent a means to return to the traditional health and wholeness of their ancestors.
Grey Cloud spoke so I could hear, but it seemed as if it were only he and Red Clouds in that dusty barn.
Grey Cloud began his story, an awful memory from his childhood that has haunted and traumatized him for years. It was New Year’s Eve, Grey Cloud recalled. He was 9 years old. His sisters were 7 and 11. Swept up in drunken revelry, his father forgot about the children as he left their home in search of another party. Six teen boys remained behind with the children.
The teens began to drink. As they got drunker and drunker, their talk turned mean and lascivious. They decided it would be a good idea to rape the young girls. When they began ripping off the girls clothing, Grey Cloud stepped forward, shouting, kicking and hitting at the teens. The teenagers turned their attention to him. Taking turns, they raped him, laughing and calling him names he didn’t understand. At the time, he recalls feeling grateful that at least his sisters were spared. When they finished, they urinated on him.
Beaten and bloodied, he laid on the floor as the teens once again turned to his sisters. Somehow, he got to his feet and tried to fight them again but he wasn’t able to stop the teens, who raped his sisters.
The sisters cried for a long time. Grey Cloud tried to comfort them but was hurt and confused by their sudden fear of him, their brother. Speaking of it now, he realizes they now saw him as a man, the enemy.
Fearful of retribution from the teens and later of how the community might judge him, Grey Cloud kept this horrendous story secret for over 20 years. It was the horses, the Wakan Oyate, however, who healed him as he worked as an equine therapist and foreman with the Tiwahi Glu Kini Pi Program at the SGU ranch. Part of the SGU tribal college, Tiwahi Glu Kini Pi offers clients a wide range of western and Lakota culturally based mental health counseling and services including providing access to Wakan Iyeska (Medicine men), instruction in Lakota men’s and women’s teachings and equine therapy.
“It was these horses who taught me that it was okay to be afraid, but that it wasn’t okay to remain silent and protect the men who hurt me,” he says.
While attending a 2014 conference for Native women victims of domestic and sexual abuse and advocates, Grey Cloud decided it was safe to tell his horrible secret. Working with the horses gave him the strength and courage to tell his story publicly. He stood up in the gathering and for the first time, he shared the story.
“The women were shocked,” he recalls. “They had never heard anything like that from a man. They cried and apologized.”
But Grey Cloud didn’t want apologies. “I just really wanted them to embrace young boys the same way they embrace young girls who have been hurt.”
At first, he felt good, relieved that he’d finally shared the terrible burden of his secret. Soon, however, Grey Cloud had second thoughts. “How would people see me as a man in the community if they knew I’d been raped,” he wondered.
“These horses helped me see that it was important for me to share my experiences so that we can help each other in the community to ensure this doesn’t continue to happen to other children.
“I don’t care now what people say about me. Some people might call me a traditional leader, but now they can know that these things can happen to anybody, even to leaders.”
Telling his story has helped him feel strong and proud, proud that he is part of bringing healing from the Suka Wakan Oyate to those who need it.
For Lakota, the Horse Nation are also bearers of spirituality and culture.
Both children and adults receive equine therapy at the SGU ranch for a wide variety of reasons, including mental health issues. Mental health professionals describe equine therapy as experiential therapy in which clients may groom, ride or walk alongside horses. The experience of gaining the animal’s trust and convincing the large potentially harmful horse to follow one’s directions can’t be done by force. Clients learn to overcome fear and learn to be more calm and in the moment when working with horses according to mental health experts such as Dr. Nicola Martin at the London School of Economics and Political Science in an interview with The Guardian. Equine therapy has benefits for many mental health problems.
For instance, some men come to the SGU ranch for equine therapy because of court-orders relating to domestic violence charges. Children might attend for help with ADHD symptoms, anxiety or for dealing with the fallout of sexual abuse. The ranch also offers weekly Lakota culture camps for tribal children.
The Tiwahi Glu Kini Pi Program is able to offer equine therapy along with traditional western therapies to clients through a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and the support of private funders. Equine assisted therapy has become popular and is now used in hundreds of health programs for clients suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD,) autism, addiction, cerebral palsy and other disorders.
Supporters of equine assisted therapy believe that those who don’t respond well to traditional talk therapy can benefit from interacting with horses. According to an article in The Guardian, since horses are pack animals they are very sensitive to stress and body language. Horses pick up on the way people are feeling, mirroring their emotions and responding, providing feedback for people struggling with troubling emotions, such as fear and anger.
Although many health professionals laud the benefits of this therapy, it does not have the scientific stamp of approval as an evidence-based practice (EBT). Most large granting institutions, such as government and university organizations, will only fund organizations that use EBTs as their primary therapies.
The Oceti Sakowin peoples, however, need no assurance from the scientific world as to the powers of the Suka Wakan Oyate, not only to heal but to also imbue the rider through talking and working with the animal, with the courage and strength to take on risky, even dangerous tasks.
They also know the horse nation is a source of spiritual power. Long ago, according to Grey Cloud, when warriors faced a powerful challenge or adversary, they dressed their horses in fabulous regalia under which medicine people first painted special symbols on the horse’s’ body.
After the Lakota were pushed onto reservations, the practice mostly died out. However, as reported in ICMN in 2014, youth attending programs at the SGU ranch began creating regalia for the horses, with the help of artist James Star Comes Out. Making regalia was not only therapeutic for the youth but also taught them more about their culture and the Lakota’s physical and spiritual relationship with horses.
Perhaps for the first time in over 100 years, according to Sam High Crane, youth coordinator with Tiwahe Glu Kini Pi, Lakota began, once again, to dress their horses. Unknown to anyone at the time, the regalia would soon play an important role in helping the world to, once again, see the power and pride of the Oceti Sakowin.
Exasperated by the aggression and lack of respect for Native lands displayed by the Dakota Access Pipeline company near the Standing Rock Reservation, elders and medicine people reminded Oceti Sakowin tribal members of the long untapped powers of the horse nation, according to Grey Cloud. They put out a call for men to do something to call attention to the disgraceful way Native rights were being ignored by those running the DAPL project.
Grey Cloud and several of his colleagues took up the challenge. In August 2016, they took four horses along with their regalia to the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota and the front lines of the stand-off between water protectors and police guarding the construction of the DAPL. For Grey Cloud, the trip symbolized the not only the healing power of the horse nation but also their ability to rekindle spiritual power and pride in Lakota culture and traditional ways.
“Medicine men first painted our horses and used medicine carried by Crazy Horse before we dressed the horses,” Grey Cloud recalled.
“We counted coup on the police who were trying to keep the water protectors away. The police moved back and ran away so that the protectors could move forward and protect the land where our ancestors were buried,” he said.
Counting coup, according to Grey Cloud, is a non-violent action in which a warrior rides up to an opponent and taps them with a stick without injury to either participant and without being captured.
“Successfully counting coup disgraces your opponent. It’s a way of publicly shaming them. We believe that if you are shamed, you must admit defeat,” he said.
“It’s a far more prideful and honorable way to defeat the enemy without having to kill,” Grey Cloud noted.
He believes it was the painted and dressed horses who gave riders the power and pride to successfully count coup that day at Standing Rock.
“We let them know that we are a force to be reckoned with; we are proud and we are still here.”
Indeed, Grey Cloud believes the horse nation is helping to heal as well as restore pride in Lakota culture and reclaim the traditional power of men both for himself and the community.
His experience with the horse nation including their impact on his own healing as well as seeing how they inspired his people to reclaim their spirituality and culture, inspired him to co-found Wica Agli, Bringing Back Men.
Wica Agli is a modern version of the traditional Lakota men’s societies. Before European contact, it was in the men’s societies that men and boys were taught their roles in the community by elder men. They learned how to treat and support women and while functioning as leaders and providers.
The main focus of Wica Agli is on youth mentoring through culture camps that focus on team building and on cultural teachings.
“We work with elders, youth and our horses to reclaim understandings of how to be good relatives,” Grey Cloud said.
“The loss of the traditional Lakota men’s and women’s societies is one of many losses among our people that has contributed to the dysfunction and violence against women in our communities,” says Amanda Takes War Bonnet, Public Education Specialist for the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains based in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.
The Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains is a coalition of Native women who are either staff or volunteers of tribal government operated or community-based service non-profit programs offering services in domestic violence or sexual assault.
Traditionally, it was the role of the men’s societies to teach boys how to care for themselves both physically and emotionally and how to behave towards women.
“It was in the men’s societies that they also learned how to deal with grief and pain,” Takes War Bonnett says.
She views the violence towards women and social dysfunction in the Native community as fallout from the historical trauma of the boarding school era and other colonial federal Indian policies that forced Native people to abandon traditional teachings.
“Without guidance about how to handle grief and other emotional pain, our young people have no boundaries or guidelines,” she says.
The community, unfortunately, responds primarily with silence, a terrible form of internalized oppression that fuels the cycle of violence, suicide and other problems, according to Takes War Bonnet
“Who is teaching our men that it’s manly to rape and assault without remorse,” she wonders.
It is only by breaking the silence about violence and sexual assault that the community can heal itself. “Greg was the first Native man I ever heard talk in such depth about what happened to him. He let us know that we can no longer be silent.”
Grey Cloud is proud of his work and walks with his head held high. Occasionally, however, in the small world of the reservation, he has to see the teenagers, now men, who raped him. Broken by addiction and tragedy, they have not fared well.
“I just look straight at them,” he says.
Ashamed, they always look away.