Dream Jobs: Life Skills Instructor

By teaching life skills through the aid of horses, Sara Crum helps at-risk youth with her equine career.

by Karen Braschayko

Sara Crum’s career with horses began when she volunteered at a therapeutic riding center and was inspired to learn more. Nearly 10 years later, she has earned certification as a therapeutic riding instructor and become an equine specialist for mental health and learning. She works at Shangri-la Therapeutic Academy of Riding (STAR), in Lenoir City, Tennessee.

With horses as her co-instructors, Crum guides teenagers through STAR’s Changing Strides Life Skills program. She designed a curriculum for at-risk youth that has earned positive results and helped many struggling young people. From learning groundwork to mounted lessons and even volunteering in the center’s classes for riders with disabilities, the students reflect on their equestrian activities and gain emotional tools to deal with life.

Here Crum shares why she loves to go to work, her thoughts on the equine assisted learning process, and how to find out more about this emerging field.

Karen Braschayko for Equitrekking: What is your background with horses?

Sara Crum:
I began taking horseback riding lessons at the stables of Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, when I was in fifth grade. I rode my bike there almost daily, regardless if I had a lesson or not. I just HAD to be at the barn. It didn’t matter what I was doing as long as I was there.

Since my dad was in the Marine Corps, we moved a lot, and unfortunately I had a long break from horses. I started riding again in 1996, when my grandpa gave me my first horse. I’ve been involved with horses full time ever since.

Equitrekking: What inspired you to choose helping others as your career?

Sara Crum:
I am also a foster parent and active in church, so I’ve always had a strong desire to help and teach others. It’s so exciting to help others while partnering with horses! It’s not considered “work” if you love what you do. That’s probably why I have done it six days a week for two years (with STAR and privately), and I still have a smile on my face.

Equine specialist for mental health and learning Sara Crum

Equine specialist for mental health and learning Sara Crum.

Equitrekking: How did you train to become an equine specialist in mental health and learning?

Sara Crum:
In 2003, I started volunteering at Heart’s Desire Therapeutic Riding Center in Mississippi. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to become the administrative assistant, and I helped them achieve premier accreditation from the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), now the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.). It was a unique experience, since we were a mobile center and had five riding sites evaluated.

After that, I got my registered instructor certification in 2005 and began teaching. I enjoyed working with riders with disabilities, hippotherapy clients and school students, but I truly had a heart for the at-risk youth in Tunica County’s Adolescent Offender Program who came to our center.

When I returned home to Tennessee, I approached STAR, looking for an instructor position. They did not have a program for at-risk youth, so I started a pilot in 2007 with the Lenoir City Alternative School. After attending many workshops from the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA) and with equine assisted psychotherapy pioneer Greg Kersten, I really stirred a passion to do more in this line of work. So, in 2011 I obtained my Equine Specialist for Mental Health and Learning certification from PATH Intl.

Equitrekking: How does this process work? What makes it different from teaching life skills in other situations?

Sara Crum:
I provide students with a stimulating, educational and safe experience by incorporating one of the values from STAR’s “Strides” to Success statement each week. The tenets are Safety, Trust, Respect, Integrity, Dedication, Excellence and Sensitivity, as well as citizenship, temptation, budgeting / finance and public speaking. I also incorporate the Search Institute’s “40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents” into the lessons.

This program provides small group sessions, multi-sensory stimulation, clear boundaries and firm expectations, in addition to the direct, immediate feedback provided by the horse. Horses are always honest, unlike humans, so there is no hiding behind fake behaviors. The truth comes out! Horses are also great at motivating attendance.

This type of experiential learning gives participants opportunities for hands-on life lessons, and they retain much more than from traditional, lecture-type teaching models. Unlike with dogs and other animal-assisted learning scenarios, horses make a bigger impact.

Equines have the power to influence many types of personalities, including extroverts, introverts, bullies and withdrawn youth. Most people have had minimal contact with horses, if any at all, so their lack of knowledge is in our favor to stimulate honest reactions and fears. 

Shangri-la Therapeutic Academy of Riding (STAR), in Lenoir City, Tennessee

A lesson at Shangri-la Therapeutic Academy of Riding (STAR), in Lenoir City, Tennessee.

Equitrekking: What is a typical day like for you?

Sara Crum:
The conditions for my line of work are a true blend of extremes. On the very cold or rainy days, I can do office work such as progress reports, lesson planning, evaluations, curriculum development, schedule coordination, etc. But if it’s nice out, I can work outside or in the barn.

Regardless of the weather situation, the horses still need care, and that requires faithful dedication. I try my best not to cancel lessons, so sometimes working in unfavorable conditions ends up being an example of perseverance for the students.

I arrive at 8 a.m. and help with barn tasks required to bring in STAR’s 27 horses and ponies. Then it’s back to the office, where I check my voicemails, read email, and have meetings with our executive director or coworkers. Later in the day, I teach lessons. After the lessons, I jot down some notes, pack up and head home. Of course, there are always the miscellaneous parts of the job description that pop up regularly.

Equitrekking: What do you enjoy most about your job?

Sara Crum:
I love teaching people useful information in a concrete way while partnering with horses. Each day that I teach, I know I have helped guide youth in a better direction than the one they came from. Equipping them with fundamental life skills that they have either ignored, paid consequences for not using, or haven’t learned yet, is priceless.

This is a dream job for me because every day is different, yet I’m still in my comfort zone. As a former military brat, I long for change. Change is what I was used to. If things stay the same for too long, I get bored. I work with various horses, and their behaviors sometimes change depending on who they are working with, the situation or the activity. The diversity of participants changes too, always keeping me on my toes.

Equitrekking: What are the biggest challenges you face in your career?

Sara Crum:
Horses are expensive in general, so programs that involve them are as well. Getting funding and making enough to live off of as a career is a constant challenge. Anyone in this field wants to help people, but it cannot be done for free, unfortunately. This economy has really hurt the horse industry as a whole, but especially the ability of clients to pay for lessons with horses.

Another challenge is developing research to prove efficacy with these programs so that insurance will pay for our services. It is difficult to put the results we see on a regular basis into a box with numbers. Research is being done across the nation, and we are slowly making progress towards earning the respect of insurance companies and medical professionals as a worthy form of therapy and learning. 

Shangri-la Therapeutic Academy of Riding (STAR), in Lenoir City, Tennessee

Teenagers learn values through STAR’s Changing Strides Life Skills program.

Equitrekking: What have been your most rewarding moments?

Sara Crum:
I could write for months about the many stories of my students who have been positively affected by equine assisted learning. Witnessing “light bulb moments” is the most rewarding part, and it occurs with at least one of the participants in every lesson!

Here is a great example:

A teenage girl from a dysfunctional background, including foster care, came to our facility for community service. She arrived with the local alternative school, and the transformation began. For the first few weeks, she was apprehensive, seemed withdrawn, had very low self esteem, and was crippled with fear. She talked back repeatedly, despite what explanation was given for the activity or exercise.

Her negative attitude and the chip on her shoulder hindered learning until this particular day. The word of the week was dedication, and the activity addressed how we need to persevere despite challenges. The pony she chose was Freckles, which she only wanted because it was her best friend’s favorite. Freckles was defiant and continuously turned into the center of the ring, wanting to be lazy and quit.

When the girl demanded that she move away and follow directions, the pony reared up, pinned her ears, and tossed her head as if to say, “No, I don’t care what you want me to do. I’ll do it my way or not at all!”

“That wasn’t very nice,” the girl said.

“Nope, and not fun to work with either, right?” I said.

Eventually, with patience and determination, she completed the task.

During the closing discussion, I asked each student, “What did your horse teach you today?”

With total confidence, she burst in, “I need to get rid of my [bad] attitude.”

This was a monumental statement from her. The teenage girl was enlightened by a defiant pony, though many humans had attempted to tell her the same thing.

Equitrekking: If someone is thinking about this career path, what steps would you suggest taking?

Sara Crum:
Learn as much as you can from reputable mentors in the field, especially about horsemanship. A general knowledge of equine and human psychology is helpful when pointing out the numerous metaphors between horses and humans (i.e. herd instinct and gang mentality, feeling safer in numbers).

There are several good training programs, such as from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), Greg Kersten’s OK Corral Series, and Chris Irwin’s program in Canada. PATH Intl. has a clear map laid out for those interested in pursuing this career, although it’s a somewhat challenging plan.

I pull ideas and activities from all of these organizations, and I modify the plans according to the students I am teaching and what goals I am trying to achieve. I think it is best to be open-minded about what works with the unique students and the specific teaching environment. With so many variables in this line of work, it is important to have as much information as possible in your toolbox.

Contact Sara Crum (865) 988-4711 or sara4tr@yahoo.com. Learn more about Shangri-la Therapeutic Academy of Riding (STAR) and the Changing Strides program at www.rideatstar.org.

Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.