CHETWYND, B.C. – Youth taking part in the Tansi Friendship Centre are getting a confidence boost, building peer support and friendships in a new equine therapy program hosted by the non-profit. More riding sessions are slated to start this month.

Riding instructor and youth wellness counsellor Bonnie Huhn says her students have been meeting biweekly since October, proud of the huge strides it’s created for their mental health and self-esteem, noting it’s really about giving youth a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“It’s pretty hard to engage a kid or a youth to talk to you in a room, regular conventional counselling isn’t really a thing for them, or something that they really want to engage in, and even then it’s difficult,” she said.

“So I created this program where I incorporate some western lessons in it, but the majority is mental health-focused, we work on what isolation over the pandemic has done to the kids, identity issues, depression, anxiety, trauma, grief – whatever they’re struggling with.”

Youth get the opportunity to learn how to ride, building their equestrian skills, but Huhn says it’s really about quality time spent, and often they just sit on the horses when they’ve had a rough day, learning to talk out their feelings, addressing inner anxieties and trauma.

The program is primarily aimed at local indigenous youth, says Huhn, but ultimately open to any kids in the Chetwynd area – 10 to 15 students can be accommodated at the local riding arena, where it all takes place.

“Sometimes it can push kids of out their comfort zone, but they get so much from it – boundaries, conflict resolution, and teamwork, stuff that they haven’t really seen much of,” she said. “So my focus really has been on indigenous kids, because they’re the ones that lack those resources the most, and it’s been a wonderful program.”

When she was a youth, Huhn says she took part in an equine therapy program, in addition to barrel racing and related sports, and feels the benefits to mental health are nearly unparalleled, adding that Saulteau First Nations has reached out to take part in the program.

“It’s a lot of fun and they’re learning long-term skills, if they’re planning to be horse owners, this will also help with that, it’s a safe place to build resiliency,” said Huhn.

Huhn has a Bachelor’s of Psychology and is currently pursuing her Master’s, after moving from Vernon to Fort St. John in 2020, noting the draw for coming to the Peace was the active equine culture.

“I’ve only been here just short of a year, but I can’t say enough good things about Chetwynd. People are friendly here, they want their community to do well,” said Huhn.