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Equine Therapy

Those who are familiar with horses recognize and understand the power of horses to influence people in incredibly powerful ways. Developing relationships, training, horsemanship instruction, and caring for the horses naturally affects young people in a positive manner, especially adolescent 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 and in working with the horses, including the field of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).

Troubled teens experiencing emotional and behavioral issues benefit from animal 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 (1994a,b) cites benefits of farm animals and dogs at a residential treatment facility for children with conduct disorders. Here at Ironwood, Equine Therapy is utilized frequently as the teens take responsibility for the care, feeding, grooming and exercising of the horses. Equine-assisted psychotherapy (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.

What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)?

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) at Ironwood 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 resident(s) 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 figure out how to function appropriately in social settings and operate effectively as part of a team. EAP sessions are also offered for many families during our Family Weekends. For more information about the EAGALA Model, please visit

History of Using Animals in Therapeutic Settings

Ironwood Animal assisted therapy has been used successfully with teens since the 1960s and primarily was used with children experiencing severe medical conditions and other disabilities. Those who are familiar with equine assisted therapy and canine therapy programs recognize and understand the power of horses and dogs to influence young people in incredibly powerful ways. As the troubled teen learns to communicate with an animal, he or she often finds a correlation between the way parents try to communicate and motivate an obstinate teen. Often teens with trust issues develop close bonds with an animal after taking responsibility for its care and well-being.

"Animal therapy has been proven to increase communication skills, confidence, self-discipline and positive behaviors," noted Debora Waring, Psy.D., Clinical Psychologist with Ironwood Residential Therapeutic School. "Equine and canine therapy programs are also effective in improving a teen’s self-esteem, as horses, dogs and other animals give the teen unconditional love and acceptance. Working with animals decreases stress, relieves depression and anxiety, and calms and motivates teens that have difficulty focusing. Animal therapy also helps teens learn compassion, leadership, and work ethic."

Equine and canine assisted therapy helps teens develop the ability to work in a group as well as enhance problem-solving abilities, improve concentration and learn to develop trust. By teaching teens how to work with and communicate with animals, therapists show teens how to utilize these same skills in the teens’ own relationships.

Why is Animal Therapy So Effective With Troubled Teens?

Teens who have emotional and behavioral issues respond well to equine-assisted therapy for a number of reasons, according to Waring. For one, caring for a large and powerful horse is demanding and requires focus and determination, allowing the teen to divert attention from his or her 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 or dog 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

Ironwood What about the teen who "hates" horses, dogs, or other animals? Waring recalled that some students she has counseled said they "hated horses and would never ride," but once teens dealt with and overcame their fear, confidence grew, their anger was diffused, and these same teens opted to trade in merits for extra riding time and sought riding lessons as well as work in barns upon leaving their treatment programs.

"Imagine struggling through a treatment program because you don’t trust humans," remarked Waring.

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 the teens’ 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.

"One teen at Ironwood was so closed that the only time we saw kindness and caring was when she was working with her horse," said Waring. "While she lashed out verbally at her peers, the teen would talk softly about her troubles and stand with her arms wrapped around her horse’s neck. Later in reflection she wrote in her journal, "Who would have ever thought that the first person I would trust would be a horse!" This young lady built confidence, communication skills, and an ability to verbalize her needs in a productive manner from working with a horse."

"It is difficult to name all the benefits of animal assisted therapy, but one of the biggest values is that animals help teens to see outside of themselves, and they learn that giving to others is sometimes the greatest and most fulfilling reward," stated Waring.

Why Animal Therapy Treatment Programs Are Successful

At Ironwood therapeutic boarding school, animals are utilized as therapeutic facilitators to improve socialization and communication, to decrease boredom and isolation, to increase mood and affect, to lessen depression, to decrease manipulative behavior, to improve memory and recall, and address grieving 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.

"Often students ask to spend time in a stall or out in the field with a horse after a rough therapy session or a hard day," commented Waring. "Young male teens who come to treatment with a "gang mentality" feel the most comfortable opening up and showing their softer side to the animals first. What they get in return from the animals is the positive reinforcement they need to begin to strip away the role they play and learn who they are as an individual."

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. Each teen bonds and grows with a different animal. Dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, mini mules, and mini horses make up the animal population at Ironwood and offer new learning opportunities each day.

For more information, call Ironwood at 1-877-496-2463.

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