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The Gila River Indian Community’s Equine Programs

Participants learn that there are resources available to them that will allow them to improve their lives. They learn that they can control their lives in a positive way. They learn to face their personal challenges and struggles with optimism, keeping in mind that the process is sometimes more valuable than the end results.
Big D's Story

“Big D” faced some daunting life challenges -- challenges that have battered his self esteem. “Big D” did not initially participate in the horse program activities. “Big D” would sit in isolation from the rest of the group. That is, until “Big D” met Tinker. Tinker, a medium build 10 year old Quarter horse Gelding, had the disposition of a care giver. Tinker found and rescued “Big D”. For 12 weeks, “Big D” could not wait until he could return to Tinker. “Big D” took ownership of Tinker, and Tinker allowed “Big D” to participate in activities with him. For the past 3 years, “Big D” has been in sessions with Tinker, as his buddy.”

Because of the progress that “Big D” has made with Tinker, his view of life has undergone an incredible, positive change. “Big D” has joined the leadership horseman group, and even rode Tinker bareback in front of the other youth participants. In that moment, a sense of cultural identity and sense of self seemed to come together. “Big D” stated that he chose to step out of his comfort zone and engage in this activity because it “was in my blood and I am an Indian.”

Target Audience

Although the program primarily targets youth 13 -22 who are affected by substance abuse and/or are at risk of suicide ideation, the entire community is included in the education and outreach strategies.

Like many communities, the Gila River Indian Community faces some formidable public health challenges including substance abuse, methamphetamine use, and suicide. The Gila River Indian Community, therefore, is committed to increasing awareness of and education on healthy life choices and is determined to support community members as they work toward achieving health and wellness. To achieve this goal, the community includes Pima/Maricopa values and traditions in all efforts.

The Community’s MSPI Program Goals

The Gila River Indian Community designed its MSPI program to achieve two main goals. First, the program aims to increase community knowledge and understanding of the issues surrounding methamphetamine use and suicide. Second, the program seeks to create and strengthen protective factors in youth by fostering cultural awareness and social connectedness, teaching leadership skills and supporting education efforts.

The Community’s MSPI Equine Project

Gila River Indian Community’s methamphetamine and suicide prevention program utilizes a number of strategies and projects to meet the program’s goal. The community has seen promising results from all of these program efforts, but feels especially proud of the success of the community’s two equine programs.

One program --Kahv’yoo Spirit-- is an equine assisted growth and learning adventure program that provides youth with “hands on a horse” ground activities. The program uses the tendency of the horses to reflect their handlers’ feelings as a way to teach the youth about themselves and how they relate to those around them. Through a variety of exercises, with feedback from the horses and with guidance from the program staff, the youth develop healthy coping skills, resiliency, self esteem and social connectedness.

The second equine program—Trail Riders Club-- developed in response to the Kahv’yoo Spirit program. When Elders in the community learned about the Kahv’yoo Spirit program, some proposed that the community’s youth might also benefit from a horsemanship program that included riding opportunities. With Elders guiding, designing and driving the idea, the Trail Riders Club was formed. It is an equine focused diversion program that provides the opportunity for families to participate in a monthly activity involving horsemanship where participants can share Pima/Maricopa culture and recount a shared history—all of which fosters a sense of belonging. Youth and family members actually “ride” horses and wagons.

Lessons Learned /Challenges Faced

Absenteeism is an unfortunate reality with the age group of youth targeted. Because many students are frequently absent from the classroom, it is difficult to get them to complete any full cycle of programming. This age group also has a tendency to give up easily when faced with small challenges. This is evident in the Equine activities that present a challenge.

The Gila River Indian Community MSPI program staff members recognize that community, school, teacher, and parent “buy-in” are all critical elements to the success of the program. Although building this coalition and support takes time, the results are impressive. Involving these key players in the program and enlisting their help has allowed the program to flourish. Getting community buy- in and support also lays the foundation for sustained efforts over time.

Areas of Success

The Kahv’yoo Spirit teachers reported positive changes in student behavior and increased attendance on program days which, in turn, forged social bonds and connectedness among the students, their peers and family members. In addition to strengthening these protective factors, the program also ensured immediate delivery of safety, counseling and support services when one student experienced suicide ideation.

By learning to overcome their fear of horses, students were able to push past their comfort zone, so they could learn and grow.

Like the Kahv’yoo Spirit program, the Trail Riders Club has been very successful. The Trail Riders Club demonstrates how community investment and ownership can make a real difference beyond what is frequently offered in traditional behavioral health programs. This program, springing from grassroots efforts, benefiting from the leadership and wisdom of community elders, and operating with the help of both Native and non-Native volunteers, has exceeded all expectations. Elders are now in the process of requesting that a 12 acre parcel of Tribal land be dedicated to this program.

To find out more about this program, please contact:

Jaime Arthur
MSPI Project Director
BHS: Prevention Program
Gila River Health Care
P.O. Box 38
Sacaton, AZ 85147
Telephone: (520) 562-3321 x3936
email: [email protected]



National Indian Health Board
50 F St NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC 20001 | Phone: 202-507-4070 | Email: [email protected]