Education’s Angela McGinnis and Zhiishigwan (Shaker/Rattle) at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary. (Photo by Shuana Niessen)

What is the connection between horses, educational psychology, and Indigenous youth and culture?

Reconnecting with cultural and traditional ways of knowing and being is increasingly seen as a significant part of the healing and learning process for Indigenous peoples, whose cultures have been historically and systemically oppressed through colonization.

A key focus of cultural preservation and reclamation has been language revitalization, but a relatively new and less understood approach to learning and healing, at least among the scientific community, is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL). For Indigenous peoples, however, horses have long been viewed as healers and as carriers of knowledge. The preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies is part of the process of cultural reclamation and preservation, and to healing and learning, as relations between Indigenous horses and peoples are (re)established.

Angela McGinnis, an Indigenous health researcher and assistant professor of educational psychology in the University of Regina’s Faculty of Education, along with her graduate student Kelsey Moore, are conducting research to better understand how and why Indigenous youth benefit from working with Indigenous horses, specifically seven Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies.

The ponies, located at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary, are cared for by McGinnis and her partner, Cullan McGinnis, who own and operate the not-for-profit organization.

The Indigenous couple also founded the sanctuary, and, while they receive some financial support from private and corporate sponsors and donors, that support doesn’t cover all of the costs. “The majority of the work and expenses to keep the ponies happy and healthy, both physically and spiritually, fall on my partner and me. Our mission is to protect, promote, and preserve the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed,” says McGinnis.

Two women stand with two horses in front of The Red Pony Stands® entrance sign
Mishkwiingwese (She Blushes), graduate student Kelsey Moore, Zhiishigwan, and McGinnis at The Red Pony Stands® entrance sign, which commemorates the four grandmother mares from which the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies descend. The seven ponies who reside at the sanctuary, located near Saskatchewan’s Qu'Appelle valley, contain the two original bloodlines, the Keokuk and Nimkii lines. Their lineages date back to the four original mares from Lac La Croix First Nation and Bois Forte Band of Chippewa who were the last remaining in the world (Lilian, Biizhiki, Diamond, and Dark Face) and strategically bred to a Spanish mustang stallion named Smokey in 1977 to save the breed from extinction. (Photo by Shuana Niessen)

McGinnis, Cullan, and the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies all originate from Treaty 3 territory in Northwestern Ontario. According to the sanctuary’s website, Elders and Knowledge Keepers say that the ponies’ origins precede the 1800s; they were in the area prior to colonial contact.

McGinnis’ parents were also caretakers of Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies, as well as another Indigenous horse breed called the Nez Perce Horse. From her earliest memories at her home in Fort Frances, horses have always been part of McGinnis’ life.

“I have a picture of me on a horse before I could even walk,” says McGinnis, who credits her father as her mentor who taught her a great deal about working with horses.

“You can't have healing without learning, or learning without healing.”

Reconnecting with her Métis/Ojibwe cultural identities has been the focus of McGinnis’s education and healing, and cultural connectedness was a central concept in her doctoral research in clinical psychology. At that time, she developed a measure to determine the extent to which cultural connectedness is associated with health and well-being among First Nations youth. Her findings indicated that cultural connectedness is a positive predictor of mental health.

This is critical information because “the mental health and well-being of youth is one of the most urgent concerns affecting many First Nations communities across Canada,” explains McGinnis.

(standing) Doodem (Clan), a five-year-old sorrel stallion, was bred from Kichi Noodin and Ishkote. His genetically matched breeding partner (foreground) is Aazadi (Cottonwood Tree). Because the ponies are critically endangered, careful DNA testing must be done before the ponies can be bred to ensure their preservation.

(Photo by Shuana Niessen)

This is why she views her work in educational psychology and her research as “a perfect fit.”

“You can't have healing without learning, or learning without healing.”

Since completing her doctoral research, McGinnis has been seeking to understand how cultural connectedness can be developed through real-world experiences, which include strengthened relationships with the land and all its more-than-human creatures, particularly the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies.

Broadening health research to include the more-than-human world is important to McGinnis because, she says, “We need to situate well-being within a larger network of social relations, with both the human and more-than-human worlds. We need to focus beyond the individual and extend our understandings about health and well-being to living in relation to all else, not just for the present, but also for future generations.”

With her expertise in psychology and her passion for the preservation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony breed, she says she is perfectly situated to bridge what often seem like conflicting worldviews. “I understand Western mental health perspectives, but my work requires an understanding of Indigenous perspectives of holistic wellness to fully understand the role of the ponies in the resilience process.”

McGinnis likens the loss of contact with Indigenous horses experienced by Indigenous communities to the loss of family members. “Part of their family has been ripped away,” she explains. “Reconnecting Indigenous youth and adults with Indigenous horses brings about indescribable moments.” She says moments that spark Elders to tell “I remember when...” stories about the ponies and traditional ways of life are charged with healing potential. “These are moments that could potentially change someone’s life. To see that happening in front of you is a privilege.”

McGinnis felt especially privileged to hear of the repatriation of the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony to Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation, her partner Cullan’s home community.

“I was completely moved by the return of three black geldings to this community, and during a recent visit to see the community's ponies, Cullan had the opportunity to meet the geldings for the first time,” she explains. “The reunion of these family members was so powerful – an emotional reuniting. The bond between the geldings and Cullan was instant. It’s a culturally specific relationship that dates back to pre-colonial contact. This type of relationship can’t be replicated with any other breed of horse.”

The three Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies from Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation gather around Cullan (Waabinaanikwad) McGinnis during their first meeting.

(Photo by Angela McGinnis)

Reunions such as these lead to the beginning of relationships with the more-than-human world, and are what McGinnis calls a “doorway to the culture,” which can help youth make other cultural connections, such as connections to ceremony. For instance, McGinnis and Cullan’s relationship with the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies at the sanctuary has led them to seek guidance from local Elders and be part of horse-specific traditional ceremonies, such as the Horse Dance.

McGinnis now wants to share these kinds of experiences with her educational psychology students. “I want to help students step through that cultural doorway. That’s how we understand how to help others, by experiencing it ourselves. And in return we help the ponies in their fight against extinction. It’s a mutual helping process. We need the Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies as much as they need us,” says McGinnis.

This spring, she will teach a course that integrates the importance of healing with horses and will involve experiential learning opportunities. One of the teaching assistants for the class is McGinnis’s master's student Moore, who was also mentored by Life Speaker Noel Starblanket until his death in April 2019. Moore is Métis and her lifelong passion for horses began over several summers working with youth at horse camps and riding stables and continued as she got to know the Curly Horse breed at her in-laws’ farm.

McGinnis and Moore were surprised by the degree to which their research intersects and aligns. They both want to understand and offer evidence-based research to explain the educational and mental health outcomes when Indigenous youth establish relationships with horses. They are both also focused on how Equine Assisted Learning programs can be culturally adapted.

"What are the chances of me finding a student who wants to work with Indigenous horses?" asks McGinnis, who says they were amazed to have found each other.

Now together they are working towards the same ends as those involved in language revitalization. “We are all tackling a shared goal: cultural preservation,” says McGinnis.

McGinnis says that the preservation of the critically endangered Lac La Croix Indigenous Ponies extends as a metaphor for Indigenous cultural and identity preservation.

“Their mere presence is a counter-narrative to the colonial history of the horse, which suggests that horses perished during the Pleistocene Era,” says McGinnis.

Indeed, the Lac La Croix Indigenous Pony survival itself inspires hope. But beyond that, McGinnis says that the interaction with Indigenous horses gives “Indigenous youth opportunities to connect with horses who have a shared history of resilience and strength, like their own, that they can identify with. It’s a culturally specific story,” she says.

McGinnis, Mishkwiingwese, and Moore demonstrate a teamwork exercise learned at the EAL certification course.

(Photo by Shuana Niessen)


In their 2016 paper in the Journal of Indigenous Wellbeing, McGinnis and Starblanket state that Equine Assisted Learning “is a relatively new approach to knowledge acquisition that draws primarily on the tenets of experiential learning, that is, learning through hands-on experience with the horse.”

To deepen her understanding of EAL, Moore received EAL certification in August 2018 at Cartier Farms, near Prince Albert. Cartier Farms teaches that establishing an experiential hands-on working relationship with horses, with their sensitivity, non-verbal communications, resilience, and forgiving ways, can be an effective approach to learning, to self-knowledge, and to self-evaluation.

McGinnis, who has been guided by the traditional Elders, Knowledge Keepers, and communities with whom she has worked, sees the potential for healing and learning in culturally adapted EAL. She views horses as “more-than human co-constructors of knowledge.”

“Horses have much to teach us about the land and living on the land,” she says.

Elders and Knowledge Keepers have taught her that horses, with their four feet always on the ground, have a greater connection with Mother Earth and the Creator. This is why traditionally horses have been considered a source of maintaining and recovering holistic wellness.

Upon the arrival of McGinnis’ first pony at the sanctuary, a beautiful stallion affectionately named Sagineshkawa (Pleasure with my Arrival), she says, “I realized that I should not rush things. I needed to slow down and have humility, especially around a powerful being like a horse. This was the horse that I had to pay attention to and listen to spiritually.”

Woman stands with her hands on horse's muzzle
Education’s Angela McGinnis and Zhiishigwan (Shaker/Rattle) at The Red Pony Stands® Ojibwe Horse Sanctuary. (Photo by Shuana Niessen)

McGinnis is grateful to all her ponies for their patience in teaching her. Moore’s experiences with horses have similarly given her the understanding that she must “slow down and be present in the moment,” she says.

“Helping humans slow down is a way that the horses care for us,” says McGinnis. She views the horse/human relationship as one of mutual caring. “We are caretakers of them and, in turn, they care for us.” Yet the researchers say there is an urgency to this work because of the need for Indigenous youth to be able to access culturally adapted healing and learning programs.

Using what McGinnis describes as “a pure Indigenous research method,” Moore is seeking to understand the spiritual and cultural connections between Indigenous youth and Indigenous horses. By incorporating ceremony as research, Moore is documenting her interactions and deep listening experiences with the ponies, along with the conversations she has with Elders and Knowledge Keepers to make sense of what she observes.

The two researchers are already envisioning future plans. “Following the completion of her academic work, we hope to apply for an operating grant to help Kelsey set up her own Indigenous-centred Equine Assisted Learning and healing program in the community,” explains McGinnis.

At the same time, the sanctuary has recently gained international attention. It will be featured in a short documentary film being produced by National Geographic Explorers as part of the Natural Connections Project. The film, called Daughters of the Wind, will document how EAL contributes to the well-being of First Nations youth.

Through the documentary, McGinnis hopes to showcase “how Indigenous communities are using horses to connect with culture, strengthen positive relationships, and learn through activities with horses and nature.”

Angela McGinnis’ project is supported the Saskatchewan Instructional Development Research Unit.

This story has been adapted from Education News, the Faculty of Education’s news magazine.