BILLINGS, Mont. — Shelly Fyant, from Arlee, painted circles around the eyes of a horse named Big Medicine.
“The circle gives us a clear vision so we can see our enemy,” she said.
The enemy Fyant is talking about is methamphetamine, the Billings Gazette reported. She and a dozen others gathered at a horse barn west of Billings to learn about equine-assisted therapy and the role it can play in recovery. The event was held in conjunction with a meeting of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leadership Council to address what is being called an epidemic of meth abuse on Montana’s reservations.
A warrior without a horse is at a disadvantage, said Gordon Birch, who led the training. Birch runs the Utah-based Pretty Shield Foundation and conducts equine-assisted therapy around the West.
“We are at war,” he said. “Many, many years ago when we went into battle, did we leave our war ponies behind?” he asked. “Today we have the opportunity to fight this battle with our horses, as one.”
Participants painted four horses —Big Medicine, Spirit, Paladin and Aria.
Bertie Brown, of Lame Deer, painted rectangular symbols on Big Medicine that represent calling for hail to fall on enemies.
The roads that cartels use to bring meth into Lame Deer are not maintained, she said, and rain will stop their travel.
Delia Morsette and Mike Geboe, of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, painted Spirit with their 9-year-old daughter, Faren Geboe. They used symbols from their Chippewa Cree tribe.
Mike Geboe painted a spiral with his left hand because warriors need to know how to use both hands. Faren painted a bison, her favorite animal.
The family said they felt more connected painting the horse together.
“Meth is a family disease. When we are dealing with it, it’s got to be a family together,” Mike Geboe said. “It’s going to be tribal ways that are going to save us.”
Morsette painted a cross because it signifies escaping damage, something she identifies with after recovering from her own addictions.
Spirit has his own recovery story. He was strong for a colt and someone wanted to train him to be a rope horse, but he wouldn’t run. Because of that, he was beaten.
Jolene and Richard Whiteclay, from Pryor, painted the palomino, Aria. Jolene Whiteclay said her grandmother taught her caring for animals teaches children responsibility.
Equine-assisted therapy involves people working with horses to build a physical and emotional bond. People might train horses to respond to commands or ride the horse as a form of therapy.
The therapy can both build strong children and communities that are less prone to fall into the trap of addiction, Birch said. It can also be helpful in recovery.
Using interventions that are a part of Native culture is important, said William Snell, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leadership Council.
“Indian people have the answers, our tribe has the answers, it’s just a matter of practicing them again,” he said.
Many on the reservation begin using drugs as a way to momentarily escape poverty and a lack of opportunity.
“With meth addicts, using feels so good,” Snell said. “This replaces that thing with another thing that’s meaningful in their life and that’s good.”
Before the painting, participants stood in a circle, which Birch said represented many things — unity, equality and a continuum — all play a role in building strong relationships and when trying to recover from a meth addiction.
“We have to look at it from a holistic standpoint,” Birch said.
Horses have the same wants, needs and desires as people, Birch said.
“We learn by working with them how to manage our fears, our emotions,” he said.
Big Medicine and Spirit weigh around 1,350 pounds. When the horses are angry, they attack, Birch said. When they’re scared, they run. The same is true for a person.
“We’ve also seen what 200 pounds of scared looks like, what 200 pounds of mad looks like.”
Richard Whiteclay said many of the tribes in Montana are horse people. His wife, Jolene Whiteclay, has worked with children from broken homes and thinks having them paint horses would give an insight to what a child is thinking and feeling.
“What they choose to put on the horse can show what’s inside,” she said.
A person and a horse can do a different exercise every day, Birch said. Working together builds up both sides and helps them overcome.
After a few months, Birch said, “you have the same horse, the same person, and we’re winning the war.”