Originally Published in Alberta Bits Summer 2019; Volume 12, Issue 2
BY JENN WEBSTER • PHOTOS PROVIDED BY LAUREL GRIFFIN
AEF Business Member, Spirit Winds Ranch near Cochrane, AB is a non-riding facility that focuses on connecting people with horses from the ground. They provide individuals the opportunity to relate to equines without ever having to own one. The ranch specializes in Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), which is a hands-on, learning-based approach to explore individual and team growth. Students and horses are taken through a collaborative series of exercises to explore problem-solving. Students often include at-risk youth or members of corporations looking to strengthen themselves as a team.
The exercises utilized at Spirit Winds are designed to encourage self-confidence and strengthen communication, and as owner, Laurel Griffin states, “Our mantra is to create a place of healing that is built on the powerful, spiritual connection between horse and human.”
Originally a Pregnant Mare Urine (PMU) operation in the 1990s with over 250 head of horses, Griffin decided to change her course in 2014.
“There were a number of kids in the Cochrane, AB area in 2014 who committed suicide. It changed the trajectory of my life and my life with horses. I knew what it meant to have a connection with a horse. And I wanted to do something to help my community,” she states.
Around the same time, Griffin also came upon an article that featured the top 10 horse courses to take for connecting horses and humans from the ground.
“At my age, I currently don’t have the same energy for equine competition I once used to. But I was riding before I could walk and then there was my involvement in Pony Club. I had ridden with Debbie Garside and Gail Ross,” Griffin recounts. “With my background and knowledge, there were so many things I could offer to my community.”
In early 2014, Griffin took a course in Saskatchewan at Cartier Farms, which offered the original creation of an award-winning, research-based EAL Building Block (™) Certification Program. Having scaled her herd back to three horses in the early 2000s, she went looking for horses that could handle the program.
“I knew I needed good-hearted horses,” she relays. “They needed to be the kind that weren’t going to spook when a kid dropped a coat or hat by accident. So I bought a bunch of older gems and then went to work with them with the Seven Games of Parelli Natural Horsemanship – and trainer, Bruce Koch’s help. He taught us what it really meant to have a connection with a horse. And after a few months of natural horsemanship, the horses were ready for the programming.”
Coincidentally, by November 2014, schools in Cochrane, AB put a call out for EAL services.
“The timing was incredible, so I can’t help but think it was just meant to be,” Griffin says. Many students have since benefitted from the Spirit Winds Ranch programs. Griffin tells the story of one of the first letters of gratitude she received from the parent of an 11-year-old girl who had been to the ranch.
“This young girl had anxiety so bad she didn’t want to go to school anymore. As a result of taking our courses, her mom told us the young lady’s anxiety dropped down, she was attending school more often and she was doing better in her studies overall!”
Then there is the heart-breaking story of one of the youngest boys to attend Spirit Winds Ranch.
“There was a young fellow who came here last fall,” tells Griffin. “He came in and had cowboy clothes on. We handed him a horse and he grabbed the lead shank from my hand, like he was an old pro and off he went. His teacher came over to me 20 minutes later and said to me, ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing.’”
The young boy’s father died by suicide in the previous year. In his father’s memory, the boy wore western clothing every day to school. As a result, he was picked on mercilessly by his peers.
“His teacher told me, ‘All he can do at school is cry. The kids pick on him so badly because he wants to wear cowboy clothes to remember his dad.’ Within weeks of coming out here and working with our horses, there was a real change in the child,” Griffin states. “The changes we saw in him at the ranch were confirmed at the school by the principal, teachers and support staff.”
To learn more about the work being done at Spirit Winds Ranch, check out their website.