The Running Free Project was born when two couples met, when one of them was looking for a run-away horse. That horse, named Free, made her way through the bush and swamp to Running Horse Ranch. Neighbors excitedly announced that Free had been seen there. Thus, the owners of the horse met the owners of Running Horse Ranch, and began to learn about that facility.
Running Horse Ranch was founded in 2002, by Kim and Rhonda Shoemaker. Rhonda is part Anishinaabeg; her father is registered at White Earth, in the United States. Rhonda's interest in horses therefore tended to the First Nations breeds that were developed in North America. Kim and Rhonda first began to acquire Nez Perce breeding stock. The Nez Perce horse is a tall, slender animal bred for running and hunting buffalo on the grass plains. A short time later, another opportunity presented itself: The Lac La Croix ponies, which had been moved to Minnesota some years previously, were in need of a home. Rhonda and Kim agreed to take the ponies in. Since the number of ponies was small, the Shoemakers began a breeding program. The Ranch now houses some 35 ponies; this is about half of the remaining world stock.
Darcy Whitecrow and Kimberlee Campbell came to the Ranch to find their lost horse. Darcy is Anishinaabeg, and a band member at Seine River First Nation. A single father for many years, and former social worker, Darcy has long been involved with the education of First Nations youth, finding activities to develop traditional identities and life skills. He recently taught a course on "The Land is Our Teacher" (sponsored by Shooniyaa Wa-Biitong) at Seine River. Dr. Campbell is a semi-retired Harvard professor of languages who currently does consulting work in the United States, helping bands, colleges and universities put together materials to teach Lakota, and to train teachers of First Nations languages.
When these two couples began to talk, the idea for the Running Free project was born. The Project seeks to help First Nations and Métis youth, who, caught in the tension between white and native, traditional and modern, reservation and town, have a significant incidence of substance abuse, a high rate of school dropout, low effective life skills and an elevated rate of suicide and other self-harmful behaviors. The goals of the project are to use the Lac La Croix and Nez Perce horses to help local First Nations and Métis youth to discover and value their own capabilities, talents and traditions. By working with horses -- grooming, feeding, watering, cleaning stalls, ground training and riding -- youth from the Treaty Three area can benefit not only by rediscovering a local First Nations tradition of horse use, but by developing life skills, self esteem and leadership qualities.
After an experimental series of week-ends with a limited number of children, during which a start-up curriculum using the principles of Equine Assisted Learning was developed, a full day involving thirty-five young people from Seine River took place on January 21st, 2012. This day was funded by Motivate Canada as a pilot for the Running Free project. Going forward, the Project, if funded, plans to organize monthly classes for the large group from Seine River. Motivate Canada has already agreed to fund weekly training as facilitators for a smaller number of older Seine River youth, so that they can help monitor the activities of younger children as the Project goes forward. Further, interest in participating has already been expressed by members of the Lac La Croix, Onigaming, Nigigoonsiminikaaning, Big Island, and Northwest Bay reserves.