Residential school survivor uses horses to teach others how to heal from trauma

Patrick Buffalo has always felt a connection to horses, but he says discovering the healing potential of the horse 'spirit' has helped him heal from his own trauma stemming from his time in residential school.

Patrick Buffalo says horse therapy helps move people 'from the head back to the heart'

Patrick Buffalo, centre, explains a horse healing technique to Allan Saskatchewan, left. (Brandi Morin)

Patrick Buffalo has always felt a connection to horses. But by spending time with them and discovering the healing potential of the horse "spirit," Buffalo says it has helped him heal from his own trauma stemming from his time in residential school.

"To me, it's very therapeutic to work with horses," said Buffalo, who owns over a dozen horses at his ranch property on the Maskwacis reserve in Alberta.

"We have two brains: the one in your head and one in your heart. We as Nehiyawak [Plains Cree] think from the heart. The Mooniyaw [white man] speaks from the brain because of the education system, and we were taught that way in residential school. But everyone is capable of thinking from the heart. The idea is to move that person [through horse therapy] from the head back to the heart."

Buffalo, 60, attended residential school in the 1960s in the nearby community of Ermineskin, Alta. He said it was a sad and lonely time there as a child, but he had to learn to adapt to it.

However, after reconnecting with his traditional beliefs, including accessing the healing potential of horses, Buffalo said it helped him get over the scarring experience.

He said a lot of Indigenous people are stuck in a rut, in a state of victim-hood, when it comes to healing. They use the "white" system to access psychiatrists and other mainstream avenues of therapy, but it's not working too well, he said.

Buffalo said it's time to get back to practising culture, which includes re-establishing a relationship with horses.

"I think historically, contrary to what history says, the horse has always been within our culture, and we are connected. We are all related," he said.

"They are healers. So many people can relate to them. The horses are non-judgmental."

Buffalo believes horses serve as a conduit to healing and that they can help people process toxic emotions like anger, hatred, jealousy and fear.

Patrick Buffalo, left, with his son, Mason Buffalo, on their ranch property on the Maskwacis reserve in Alberta. (Brandi Morin)

Releasing trauma

Horses also have trauma that is embedded into their memories, he said. The horse and rider each have their own vibration and what he calls "blocked energy."

Buffalo works in a process he created, called the Kisikaw (Day) Method. The method helps the two release trauma, then aligns the energy between them so that a bond can form. From there, healing is a natural process, he said.

For years, his son, Mason Buffalo, struggled with addictions and suicidal thoughts. It wasn't until recently that he decided to take his father's advice and work with the horses.

"I go through struggles on a daily basis of falling into that vicious cycle with the environment that I'm around here in the community, with a lot of alcohol around and a lot of depression that I've went through," said Mason.

"Even though my father has such amazing healing techniques, it's all up to the individual to get that help that they want and need. There's been so many times where I didn't want the help, where I wanted to stay stuck for some reason, not knowing why."

A group trail ride in the Maskwacis area. Patrick Buffalo says it's time to get back to practising culture, which includes re-establishing a relationship with horses. (Brandi Morin)

But attending a recent horse dance ceremony — a traditional Plains Cree ceremony — at his father's ranch changed Mason's perspective. He said it was an opportunity for him to let his guard down and give the horses a chance to help him heal.

Now, Mason Buffalo is determined to share his success with the rest of his community by sharing his story of healing.

'It's like a partnership'

Allan Saskatchewan bonds with one of Patrick Buffalo's horses. The 17-year-old says learning about horses is a rewarding experience. (Brandi Morin)
Allan Saskatchewan, 17, visits the Buffalo farm any chance he can get. For him, learning about the horses is a rewarding experience.

"It means a lot to me [to come here]," said Saskatchewan.

"If you go out on a ride and you're talking to the horse, it's like a partnership. These guys [horses] keep me company, they're like a problem solver. If I'm feeling bad, the horse makes me feel good."

Patrick Buffalo said he's approached the Samson Band to help finance the horse therapy program so he can expand it to a wider audience.

In the meantime, he said he's receiving calls from across Canada from people wanting to participate in a horse healing session.

"There are no resources right now, but I will bring the people in anyway and I will work with them," he said.

About the Author

Brandi Morin

Brandi Morin, Métis, born and raised in Alberta, possesses a passion for telling Indigenous stories. Based outside Edmonton, Morin has lent her talents to several news organizations, including Indian Country Today Media Network and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News. She is now hard at work striving to tell the stories of Canada's Indigenous peoples to a broader audience.