The worried parents of a troubled teen boy might find his behavior simply baffling. As they see him make poor decisions, harming others as well as himself, they may attempt to reach out and discuss the matter, and each time they try to talk, the boy may respond with a series of monosyllabic words, all designed to encourage the parents to hush up and back off. The idea of putting the child in a therapy program might seem confusing to parents of a child like this, and they may wonder why they should pay someone to talk to their child when they’ve been so spectacularly unsuccessful in drawing out the child at home. It’s understandable, but in reality, treatment programs for teens have access to resources that parents simply may not have. For example, some programs hire experts who incorporate horses into their work.
What Is This Therapy?
Horses have always been part of American life, and according to the American Horse Council, over two million people in the United States own horses. These animals might play a vital role on farms, allowing ranchers to keep track of sheep and cattle without setting foot in the middle of the herd. Horses might also provide recreational opportunities for their owners, allowing experts to travel great distances or win profitable races. Equine-assisted therapy, or EAT, isn’t designed to instill a love of horsemanship in people who participate. In fact, a love of horses isn’t even a requirement of this therapy, and those who participate may not ever ride a horse.
Instead, the horses are used as a sort of teaching tool for young people, allowing them to pick up lessons that might elude them via other training methods.
In a typical equine-assisted therapy session, a therapist stands at the ready while a client works with a horse. The therapist might ask the client to entice the horse to:
- Move forward
- Accept a halter
- Nibble a treat
- Submit to brushing
These are low-risk behaviors an average horse might engage in hundreds of times per day, but as prey animals, horses might also be cautious of newcomers. They might balk if the commands are given in a loud voice, and they might be unmoved by physical threats of intimidation. A specific approach must be used, and that approach contains the lessons adolescent boys might need.
Adolescent boys can act up for all sorts of reasons, but for many, poor decisions stem from impulsiveness. Boys who can’t control their actions and who consistently choose the benefits of the now over the benefits that might come in the future are almost destined to develop a host of poor habits that can follow them into the future. For example, in a study in the journal Addiction, researchers found that high impulsivity scores in boys at age 14 resulted in gambling problems in these same boys when they reach age 17. Some might also develop drug addictions, as they might choose to experience the immediate joys of drugs without thinking of the dangers their habits might hold at a later date. Impulsivity is a wonderful issue to address in an EAT session, as horses seem designed to provide immediate feedback, and that feedback can be overwhelmingly negative. Teen boys who try to force their horses to comply might be met with 1,200 pounds of resistance, and that horse might not be willing to work with the teen as the session progresses. Teens accustomed to immediate pleasure might learn that they should plan ahead, moving methodically, in order to get what they want. It’s a concept that’s easy to discuss in a therapy session, but a horse can demonstrate that lesson in real time.
In addition to impulsivity, some adolescent boys with behavior difficulties have a history of complicated relationships that involved:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
These young people are leery of forming attachments, and they may struggle with the idea of accepting affection or joy from another being. In counseling sessions, these young people may clam up and shut down, and they may seem impervious to the help that they’re offered. In a study of EAT in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, researchers suggest that adolescents who normally avoid physical contact from humans might accept that affection from a horse. These creatures are large, gentle and remarkably silent. They don’t taunt and tease, and they don’t seem judgmental. They respond to gentle scratches and are capable of expressing affection through their posture and expressions.
For young people with trust issues, horses can show them the benefits of connecting with another living creature.
Therapists can also build on the openness they see their clients demonstrating in an EAT session, and they might use the horse as a metaphor, opening up a conversation about love, respect and trust. Teens might get benefits from this therapy that stick with them for the rest of life.
Much of the work done in therapy is abstract. Adolescent boys might be asked to think about the choices they’ve made and they might be encouraged to think about how they might make different choices in the future, but there are few opportunities for teens to put these lessons to immediate use. The work is designed to help in the future, but the results might be hard to see in the here and now. Adolescent boys who are accustomed to testing theories immediately and seeing results right away may find the nature of therapy to be a bit depressing, and they might wonder if they’re really making progress at all.
Equine-assisted therapy sessions, on the other hand, can provide teen boys with a sense of accomplishment. With each session, they might find the horse to be a bit more responsive and a bit easier to control. They might find that their own understanding of the horse’s needs grows and grows, and they might find it easy to put those lessons to use the very next time they come in contact with the horse. When they do something right, the horse’s response might be amended almost immediately. This kind of feedback is hard to attain in standard therapy, but it might be part and parcel of the work done in an EAT session, and each little victory might fill the teen with confidence. If he can handle a horse, he might think, he can also handle his life.
EAT is an individualized therapy, and the counselors who provide this intervention are careful to develop therapy goals that track with the lessons teens need to learn in order to succeed in the world. Some might need to learn confidence, others trust, and still others might need to focus on impulse control or communication. As a result, it’s somewhat difficult to measure how well EAT works in the treatment of teens. Since all participants enter the programs with different goals, it might be difficult to ensure that they’re getting the help they need, if researchers use the same set of tests in order to measure the success of a diverse set of people.
Even so, there have been several studies conducted on the overall benefits of equine-assisted therapy, and the results have been encouraging.
For example, in a study in the journal Health and Social Care in the Community, researchers found that EAT provided at-risk teens with improvement in scores of functioning. This is a basic test of how well a teen is handling life and the challenges that lie ahead, so an improvement in that score generally suggests that the teen is headed in the right direction. This study suggests EAT can provide that benefit. In a separate study published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, researchers found that participation in equine-assisted therapy resulted in improvements in a variety of areas, including those concerning communication and behavior, and that the improvements seen were greater than those seen in children who received only standardized counseling. Adding in horses seems to make life better for many teens, which seems to suggest that this is a valuable intervention for almost any troubled adolescent boy.
Finding a Program
Traditionally, EAT has been included in programs for teen girls, possibly because many adolescent girls have a professed obsession with horses and they find that working with horses seems rewarding and enjoyable. Some programs for boys don’t include horses, however, and it can be somewhat difficult for parents to find this kind of help for their boys. At Muir Wood, however, we do provide an equine-assisted therapy program for our clients. We’re dedicated to providing adolescent boys with the safe, structured, therapeutic environment that can allow them to manage their time, develop their skills and succeed in the world.
For us, EAT plays an important role in breaking through barriers and helping our clients to heal. We provide our clients with access to trained practitioners of equine-assisted therapy, and all of the horses in the program are temperament tested and safe for our clients to handle. While this isn’t the right intervention for all of our clients, we find that many teens simply adore the time they spend in equine-assisted therapy, and they apply those lessons in the rest of their lives. If you’d like to find out more, please call.