Those familiar with horses recognize and understand the power of the horse to influence people in incredibly powerful ways. Developing relationships, training, horsemanship instruction, and caring for the animal naturally affects young people in a positive manner, especially teens working toward positive change. The benefits of work ethic, responsibility, assertiveness, communication, and healthy relationships has long been recognized, and horses naturally provide these benefits. The use of horses is growing and gaining popularity with the rise of new approaches in animal therapy including the field of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
Teens experiencing emotional and behavioral issues benefit from equine-assisted therapy, according to mental health professionals. Studies such as Redefer and Goodman (1989) and Kogan, Granger, Fitchett, Helmer and Young (1999) document the benefits of interaction with a therapy pet, and Mallon (1994 a,b) cites benefits of farm animals and dogs at a residential mental health treatment facility for children with conduct disorders. Here at Ironwood Maine, Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy is utilized frequently as the teens take responsibility for the care, feeding, grooming, and exercising of the horses. EAP is an emerging form of therapeutic intervention beneficial to the mental health and healing of teens undergoing treatment for depression, anxiety, ADD, alcohol or drug abuse and other disorders.
How is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Conducted at Ironwood?
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) at Ironwood Maine is conducted using the EAGALA model, which requires the participation of a Licensed Mental Health Professional, an EAGALA-certified Equine Specialist, and horse(s) in a private setting. In these sessions, the residents first check in with the human facilitators, then engage in groundwork activities with the horses in an experiential fashion, with little to no interference from the MH and ES aside from keen observation. At the close of the session, the horse’s behaviors are discussed and meaningful questions are asked by the facilitators, with the resident’s own words then used to draw connections and metaphors that link the experience with the horses back to events or focal points that exist in the resident’s everyday life. The goal is to help teens build skills such as communication, responsibility and self-confidence in a safe environment in which the teen can make mistakes and learn from them. This form of therapy is very effective because horses are intelligent, perceptive creatures that often reflect the treatment they receive, and they also respond noticeably to the slightest change in a human being’s approach. Ironwood offers Individual EAP sessions when a resident’s therapist or the Equine Specialist feels it will benefit most. Weekly group sessions that rotate frequently for many residents at different levels in their program are also offered. Group sessions help teens discover how to function appropriately in social settings and operate effectively as part of a team. EAP sessions are also offered for families during our Family Weekends.
Why is Animal Therapy So Effective With Troubled Teens?
Teens who have emotional and behavioral issues respond well to equine-assisted psychotherapy for a number of reasons. For one, caring for a large and powerful horse is demanding and requires focus and determination, allowing teens to divert attention from their own issues. Secondly, horses may not want to be coaxed, which challenges teens to overcome their fears in order to lead and work with the animals. Horses also mirror teens’ moods and respond negatively to aggression, demonstrating to teens that their behavior can affect others and that gentleness, kindness, and positive actions will work successfully with horses and other animals. Therapists often draw metaphors between horse behavior and human behavior, helping teens gain insights into their own emotions. When teens become frustrated, for example, therapists use the opportunity to discuss and model appropriate methods of displaying emotions.
A teen who is learning how to give animal commands also learns to appreciate that others feel good if they did what was asked of them because it feels good when the horse follows his directions. Teens learn how to treat animals gently and with kindness, and once they learn how, this behavior can be applied to the way they treat others. As teens become adept at caring for the animal, confidence increases, they learn patience, compassion, and responsibility, as well as decision-making and leadership skills.
The Healing Power of Animals in the Face of Negativity
Trusting those whom you have been hurt by is difficult. The wall that adolescents often put up is sometimes too strong to break through. Animals, with their quiet patience and infinite listening abilities, are often the first to crack the facade and allow emotions to show. Once teens feel safe, they often make tentative steps in the direction of trusting others and begin searching to make productive and rewarding human relationships as well.
Why Animal Therapy Treatment Programs Are Successful
At Ironwood Maine, animals are utilized as therapeutic facilitators to improve socialization and communication, to decrease boredom and isolation, to increase mood, to lessen depression, to decrease manipulative behavior, to improve memory and recall, and address grief and loss issues. Treatment is individualized to each teen’s specific needs, and outcomes from equine assisted therapy, canine therapy and working with other animals have been extremely successful.
Staff have observed teens grooming their horses lovingly while telling the horse all about their days and their struggles. To struggling teens, these relationships seem so easy and uncomplicated. Here is a relationship in which they give and get back, in which they talk and feel heard, in which they must listen to the animal’s body language in order to communicate. Animals have different personalities and teens must learn how to read each animal’s signals and deal with personality quirks. Sometimes teens don’t like working with a certain animal at first; however, after they figure each other out they see how building the relationship is a metaphor for dealing with social situations.