• Mala Malstead

Horse Therapy: The Trouble with Firefly

Updated: Sep 8

“When the horses behaved well, it was easy to imagine that our core was solid.  Yet, with just one horse miss-stepping, the entire program was at risk of unraveling.”


Leg Up has continued to thrive for the last five years as an opportunity for rescued girls to reach out in compassion to disabled children. The focus of the program is to teach the girls to focus on others instead of their own problems. The success of the Saturday morning sessions hinges on the girls' confidence and skill in leading the horses and their ability to support the children on the horses' backs while maintaining a safe, calm environment.

A few months ago I began having trouble with one of our young horses. During a therapy session, Firefly started misbehaving and kicking girls, children, and mothers.  The girls, fear-stricken, refused to have anything to do with Firefly.  Everyone began to avoid him and his attitude became worse.  We stopped using him during therapy sessions.  Mothers of the disabled children lost their trust, the girls were afraid; I felt overwhelmed and sobered by the risks. I knew he needed re-training.


My family and I were headed away to the States for the summer. My oldest two girls were starting college and I needed to be fully present in their lives. Three weeks before we left, I gathered the girls, an American volunteer, a social worker, and the Ruhamah workshop manager around me. “Ladies,” I said, “I think we need to slow down.  You are afraid of Firefly, and he is getting worse. We will stop working with the disabled children for a while. While I am gone, I want you to come every Saturday and just brush the horses and spend time with them.”

I pulled them out of work at Ruhamah Designs six consecutive times over those three weeks and went back to basics. I taught them the Parelli games. They learned to send horses away, and then toward them again. They learned to work with the carrot stick and play the “porcupine game.”


We moved to the round pen and I showed girls how to “join up.” That was the biggest miracle of all:  Firefly moving around the pen at liberty, a girl with a whip in her hand, and then his lowered head, cocked ear as he “asked” to be allowed to stop and come into the circle to re-establish his connection with the girl. Girls began asking for the privilege of joining up with Firefly!


Gradually girls learned to be in charge. The horses bowed quickly to the new submission exercises.  When girls could move and direct the horses, they gained confidence. Firefly started improving almost at once. Freedom Firm staff faithfully brought the girls every Saturday, rain or shine and reinforced the lessons while I was gone.


The trouble with Firefly is a gift. Sometimes it is not enough to reach out in compassion to others.  Sometimes we have to slow down and examine ourselves, our relationships, and the messages we send.  We need to take time to look at our foundation, build our communication skills, and strengthen our inward person. I am challenged to keep tweaking the program to make time, space, and opportunity for all potential growth. Last Saturday we re-started our therapy sessions with the disabled children.  Firefly is still not perfect, but our girls are more confident. The imperfections of our horses, our program, and ourselves, keep us engaged, learning and moving toward solutions.

811 N.Kansas Ave,

E.Wenatchee, WA 98802

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