Kituwah Equestrian Program to provide therapeutic services
Center for Native Health representative Lisa Lefler rides a horse with the direction of a Kituwah Equestrian Program member in Jackson County, North Carolina. The program works to bring therapeutic services to people using horses. COURTESY
Horse enthusiast and Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen Natalie Smith wants to share how spiritual and therapeutic it can be to connect with and ride a horse through a therapy program using horses and operated by the Kituwah Equestrian Program. COURTESY
JACKSON COUNTY, N.C. – Knowing how spiritual and therapeutic it can be to connect with a horse, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians citizen Natalie Smith is working to bring that experience to others.
She and Kituwah Equestrian Program members help bring therapeutic services to people using horses in western North Carolina.
Smith said she’s a “horse enthusiast” and a “horse lover and owner” and that she grew up with a “spiritual relationship with horses” because of her Cherokee family.
“Here I am now, as an adult, owning my own horses and learning professionally down in Polk County (North Carolina). There is such a vacancy of equestrian activity in and around the Qualla Boundary (EBCI homelands),” she said. “It’s all private. It’s all done within families or small circles or people who come in to ride trails. There’s no formal education about horse sciences whatsoever or anything to do with horses besides trail riding.”
At first she thought the area needed more Cherokee people learning about horses and competing in equestrian competitions, but then she realized horses are needed for therapy in her home area.
“We can use horses in our community on many, many levels right now. We have desperate need for alternative therapies for the opioid epidemic, for at-risk youth, survivors of domestic violence. The list goes on and on,” she said. “So that is happening. We have a group of people and the group is growing. We have our eyes set on multiple sources of funding.”
Specifically, the program is working on a therapy that calls for two campuses.
“One campus is dedicated to mental and behavioral health and physical therapy, so there’s two types of therapies there,” Smith said. “And then the other campus is dedicated to continued education, which could also be described as preventative involvement, to prevent anyone in our therapy programs from relapsing.”
She said the program would also like to provide clinics for horse ownership and boarding for horses as a revenue stream. No sites have been chosen, but the program is looking at sites in Swain and Macon counties.
“We want the therapy campus to be easily accessible to our core service area of Qualla (Boundary) and Swain and Jackson (counties). Finding the right land is hard here because there needs to be adequate space and there needs to be viable pasture,” Smith said. “We have a big team of people, and we have high confidence that we will be funded.”
She said the program would provide horses and equipment for therapies. The idea is to start with seven horses for both therapy sites.
She said she owns three rescue horses and helps them work through their traumas, and they help her work through hers. The horses also allow her to be outdoors often, she said, which she believes is vital for children and adults.
“When I was a kid, I spent all of my time outside, and I’m still outside a lot. I feel like our youth, and even people my age, are disconnected from nature, and I feel like an equestrian program would help,” Smith said. “There’s a different way of connecting with a horse. It requires spirituality. I would love to provide my people with a taste of that, that I feel has been lost.”
For information, visit the Kituwah Equestrian Program Facebook page or kituwahequestrian.org