Using Horse Traditions To Reduce Teen Suicide On Wind River Reservation

Jul 15, 2016

Arapaho Social Services Director Allison Sage leads a student on a horse ride.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Kids and horses gather on a dusty riding ground on a ridge overlooking the snow-capped Wind River Range. Northern Arapaho Social Services Director Allison Sage starts the day’s ride as he always does: with a prayer and introductions.

“We’re using Arapaho language,” he says. “We’re saying nee'eesih'inoo. That means ‘my name is.’ So you say, nee'eesih'inoo and then how you feel.”

Everyone goes around the circle, taking turns expressing their feelings. And Sage will end the day’s the same way to see if spending time with a horse improves your mood.

It’s called the Horse Culture Program because the reservation’s two tribes, the Eastern Shoshone and the Northern Arapaho, have a long history with horses. After Europeans brought them to the Americas, many tribes adopted them to a new, more nomadic way of life, pursuing herds of bison and other big game. Now the Horse Culture Program is using that history to combat the modern day problem of teen suicide.

“It started as a suicide prevention initiative to help them understand and express their feeling,” Sage says, “because sometimes when we’re hurting or feeling sad, we don’t know how to say that.”

Sage says he gets calls almost every weekend from kids attempting suicide. Suicide rates are at epidemic levels on many reservations where kids are two and a half times more likely to kill themselves that non-natives. But rates are also very high in the state of Wyoming with the fourth highest rate in the country.

Yet somehow, suicide rates on the Wind River reservation are actually relatively low compared to the rest of Fremont County. In the last five years, only 12 of the 59 suicides here were on the reservation, less than a quarter. But Sage says, with so much suicide around them, it’s important to stop its spread before it starts. He says the best way is to turn to the traditional culture. 

For many on Wind River reservation, that means horses.

“They have a really nice spirit and it makes us happy. Like songs, like singing, like prayer. When we’re on them, as you seen the children today, they’re all smiling.” 

Sage and other volunteers help kids climb on horseback and then lead them around the field at a gentle pace. But some kids are more experienced. One kid runs and flings himself on the bare back of his colt, Stormy. 11-year old Kaden Lone Dog has been riding since he was three and won trophies riding bareback in Indian relay races. He says, when he’s upset all he wants to do is get on a horse and ride fast.

“I always jump on my foal and go to my pasture and get on my horse when I’m mad at my dad,” Lone Dog says. “I ride to the ditches and rivers."

But Program Director Sage says, he’s been using social media and word of mouth to reach kids less experienced than Kaden too. He says, just overcoming their fears teaches them to deal with stress.

“The horse, it senses when we’re afraid of them,” he says. “But it doesn’t hold it against us so when we get over our fears, then the horse is okay with that. It doesn’t keep making us be afraid of it.”

And overcoming fears is something many Native kids know a lot about, according to Erik Stegman, director of the Center for Native Youth, a national organization. He says a large percentage of Native children grow up in foster homes or in the juvenile justice system.

“For many youth, they really are on their own when they’re young and feel that they have a pretty serious lack of support,” Stegman says.

He says there's also a lack of support in Native schools and health care for such kids. But he says traditional culture programs can undo some of that harm.

“When they can come to a horse culture program and really be grounded again in their own culture and community and be with elders, that gives them a completely different outlook on life.” 

“Circle up!” Sage calls to the group and some of the kids whistle to get everyone’s attention. It isn’t easy getting everybody off the horses, but soon they all gather together. “Okay, let’s fix our circle. We’re just checking back in again. Can you see the joy in these children when they ride and everyone?”

The kids all quiet down and they start again, saying nee'eesih'inoo and talking about how they feel after their time with a horse. Then, after everyone's had a turn, the crowd heads for the parking lot. Back to their everyday lives.

The Horse Culture Program meets every Tuesday evening at the Wind River Casino in Riverton and every Thursday at the rodeo grounds in Ethete. To learn more, check out this film about the program or visit the Northern Arapaho Suicide Prevention Facebook page.