Greg Grey Cloud stands in the middle of the arena, thumbs in his hip pockets, beside a black-and-white Paint who wanders and roots aimlessly in the dry sand. The space is slightly smaller than a high-school basketball court, walled in particle board with an arched roof of white plastic that seals in the warmth from the overworked radiant heaters on this chilly northern prairie morning. Mud from the pens outside clings to Grey Cloud's boots and to the bottoms of his jeans. He closes his eyes and inhales. The air smells of coffee and manure and the smoke of burnt sage from the smudging—a ritual that cleanses the energies of the place, and those of the handful of people seated in dusty folding chairs.
Grey Cloud releases a nasal cry, a monophony in Lakota. The Paint raises her head and turns to attention. In English, the prayer song roughly translates to:
The horse nation is here
The horse nation is here for us
It is time for us to look upon them
The horse nation is here
The high-pitched voice rings out across this remote ranch, down the gravel road that cuts through the plains just west of Mission, the closest thing to a city on the Rosebud Indian Reservation of south-central South Dakota. The audience comprises about two dozen social workers, caregivers, students, and community members, some Native, some white. They're all here to learn how Grey Cloud and his compatriots are using traditional Lakota horse culture to help area children suffering from mental trauma. Today, volunteers will step out onto the arena floor and learn to groom and lead and even speak to the animals, bonding with them as the Lakota ancestors believed they could do with their fellow creatures. The people will learn to trust the horses, not as pets, but as companions, reliable confidants, and kinfolk.
But first, the invocation. Grey Cloud is only 32 years old, but his song reaches back generations, deep into the earth beneath this sea of pale grass. His words are meant to connect the energies of the audience with those of the horses, whom Grey Cloud refers to as "relatives."
"We use the term 'relatives' a lot," he tells me later, "because the primary part of Lakota culture is that everything is related. There is a giant benefit in believing that we have a connection. They'll take care of us and heal us."
Grey Cloud is not a licensed therapist or caregiver, nor is he a certified educator. In fact, he's not even Lakota. He is an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, born on a family-run horse ranch on the Crow Creek Reservation just northeast of here, on the other side of the river. He was 14 when one of his tribe's medicine men recruited and trained him to help administer to his people's needs. He learned to conduct a sun dance, a ceremony where the community prays and pledges sacrifices in exchange for healing. In 2012, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and his two sisters were plagued with diseases—one with lupus and one with rheumatoid arthritis. During a sun dance, he sang, played a drum, stepped in time to a beat he believed to be connected to the tree of life, and promised to dedicate his life to helping his community in return for their health. His mother and the sister with arthritis both recovered.
In February of 2012, Grey Cloud was invited by the Sicangu Oyate Nation to help out on this side of the Missouri River. When Grey Cloud arrived in Todd County, where Mission is located, the area was (and still is) among the poorest in the country. Unemployment on the Rosebud Reservation, itself, was above 80 percent, and 76 percent of people with jobs lived below the poverty line. Grey Cloud established Wica Agli, a non-profit that combats sexual violence and domestic abuse, and mentored boys in the community. Then, in 2013, faculty at Sinte Gleska University reached out to him about returning to his family ranching roots and starting this program, called Tiwahe Glu Kini Pi ("Bringing the Family Back to Life"), with some horses donated by local ranchers. Grey Cloud says being raised around the animals not only provided him with the skill to handle and to care for the beasts—but it also imbued him with an almost preternatural understanding of them. "When you grow up around horses," he says, "you're just ... different."
Lakota horse culture is not a list of specific rituals or practices. It's more of a subspecialty based around the core Lakota belief that all living things are connected and can thus react to one another. Horses, with their important place in Native American history, are believed to be specifically attuned to the actions and emotions of humans. Some of these horses come to Grey Cloud as misfits, either abused, abandoned, or poorly trained. And there is something in the training of the powerful animals, the careful compact between ride and rider, that provides a unique emotional exchange. Grey Cloud says it was the horses that told him they were willing to go with him to Standing Rock in March of 2017, to confront North Dakota police during protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Together, horses and riders convinced the officers to yield and fall back.
"I didn't believe in the mystical bond at first," says Dave Valandra, who grew up ranching outside of Mission and now runs the Sinte Gleska University Ranch, which stables about two dozen horses. "We used horses as tools and for rodeo." Valandra is 64 years old, a retired law enforcement officer who says he's watched with mounting concern as the children of this area have been abandoned by the government, their community, and even their parents, and have succumbed to lives of drugs and crime. He says what he has seen here—first in terms of Grey Cloud and the ranch hands molding wild horses into gentle therapy-givers, and then in the interaction between those animals and the troubled children—has changed his mind about horses as mere farm implements. He says Grey Cloud, three decades his younger, has taught him more about Native American culture than any member of Valandra's family ever had. "Now I come out here and I'm talking to the horses," Valandra says. "And they listen."
Kelsey Soles, a mental-health therapist with the program who has a graduate degree in counseling from South Dakota State University, says there are plenty of documented examples of equine therapy used to help everyone from abused children to soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to prison inmates. More recently, a 2018 study found that a six-week program of therapeutic horseback riding produced "clinically significant" results in post-deployment service members suffering from PTSD and/or traumatic brain injuries. In 2016, researchers found that equine-assisted activities also helped improve the social skills of children and teens with autism. What Grey Cloud adds to an already promising model, Soles says, is the spiritual aspect that helps many of these particular children connect with their culture. "It's something you have to experience," she says. "It's something you do, see, and feel."
Back at the ranch, Grey Cloud takes the observers outside, into the corral, where he invites them to experience the bonding themselves. One of the most important exercises of the program is called the Spirit Connection ceremony. A child stands in the center of the corral alongside a counselor. The team of horses is brought in and made to run circles around the youth. Meanwhile, the counselor urges the child to focus on the sounds, vibrations, and movements of the horses and how that makes the child feel. When the horses stop, one of them will sense the particular trauma and gently gravitate toward the child. A connection has been made.
Grey Cloud then asks for a volunteer. A young intern with a local outreach service steps forward, into the center of the corral. Nine horses are brought in through the gate. Grey Cloud yells "Hep, Hep" to rouse the beasts into motion. Dust rises, and the ground quakes beneath the thunder of 36 hooves. The intern closes her eyes. The stomping eventually subsides and settles into an eerie prairie silence. The breeze brushes the thick grasslands. A bird cries. The horses mill about, most grazing. "This can take anywhere from five seconds to 45 minutes," Grey Cloud says.
Within a few minutes, a brown gelding gradually approaches the intern. The horse nuzzles up to her. She lifts her hand and strokes his neck and tousles his mane. She smiles and exhales; her shoulders relax. Whether the powerful beast is merely sympathetic, or whether something in its history mirrors the trauma on which she was focusing, nobody knows for sure. That is a secret between the two of them.
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