How Equine Therapy Helps Vulnerable Youth

Posted by Idaho Youth Ranch on Jun 26, 2020 9:13:19 AM
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People often ask how, exactly, horses can make such a big impact on people who have experienced trauma. Many people think it is about simply riding horses and are surprised to learn that Idaho Youth Ranch Equine Therapy is ground-based.

“How does playing with horses help kids overcome trauma and get on a good path?”

There are three reasons Equine Therapy is so powerful and effective for kids who are struggling with rage, anxiety, depression, and trauma.

It’s Experiential

Often times when parents come to Idaho Youth Ranch they have tried traditional counseling before with limited results. While traditional counseling methods like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and other forms of “talk therapy” have been proven to be effective and work very well, some kids resist the therapies or become “over-therapized.” In short, they are tired of talking about it and they are tired of listening.

Equine Therapy is a different kind of approach because the young person is in charge of what happens in the session. The specially trained therapists will create a series of activities or opportunities in the arena with the horses and allow the client to have an experience.

To give you an example, a mother and daughter were doing family Equine Therapy together. When the two arrived for their first session, they were fighting and being downright mean to each other. They had begun struggling in their relationship after the mother’s brother committed suicide.

In the arena, the therapist asked the two to go through an exercise with the horse, and the horse gravitated toward the daughter. At first, the mother became very angry and she complained that the horse simply did not like her. When the therapist asked why that bothered the mother so badly, she began to cry and shared that had she been closer with her brother, perhaps he wouldn’t have taken his life.

That was the insight she needed to recognize that she had been taking her grief out on her daughter. By the end of the session, the mother and daughter were holding each other and crying.

That experience led the two toward an insight that opened the door for healing.

Horses Are an Emotional Mirror

Despite their size, horses are actually prey animals and are therefore very good at responding to the modes, tones, and actions of humans. If you are scared, the horse will be scared. If you are nervous, the horse will be nervous.

For example, a young man was having difficulty with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. He was thirteen years old and felt he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. When his parents found out we offered Equine Therapy, they thought that it was a natural fit.

It took a while for this young man, let’s call him James, to get settled in. James felt sure that nothing was going to work and the team struggled to help him make any meaningful breakthroughs, but he did seem to enjoy the time he spent with the horses.

Finally, one of our therapists handed him a backpack full of baseballs and asked him to write down all the negative things he thinks about himself on the baseballs, one thought per baseball. The young man wrote on twenty baseballs.

The therapist then asked him to walk around the arena and read the things he wrote down to the horse, one at a time.

Perplexed, James did so. About halfway through the exercise, James came back to the therapist and said, “I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“I don’t think this is good for the horse.”

The horse in the arena with that young man had begun reacting to his body language and tone of voice and therefore started to react to James differently. That gave James the opportunity to see how the things he was telling himself were so damaging, and it gave our incredible staff the chance to help James see something that he wasn’t able to see for himself.

This is an especially important part of Equine Therapy because kids often struggle to articulate and identify their emotions and triggers. In James’s example, he did not realize what a powerful impact his negative thoughts were having on his feeling of wellbeing and self-esteem. When the horses started reacting to him, it gave him the chance to see his emotions reflected back in the horse. He could experience the emotions by proxy and get the insight he needed to recognize a behavior that was hurting him.

By mirroring those emotions, horses give kids the chance to stop and think about them one at a time. They can put names to their feelings and talk about what is driving them.


In the Moment

When working with horses, everything you do is “in the moment.” If a young person is trying to lead the horse through the arena and can’t get him to follow, that young person might feel any range of emotions, from anger to disappointment. Because of that, the young person has the chance to reflect on the emotion in the moment he is having it.

Consider the example of James above.

In a traditional setting, James might have talked about how he has negative thoughts but might not be able to articulate how those thoughts impact him. He might say that all people have negative thoughts or that it’s not a big deal.

Because James experienced those feelings in the moment and saw how the horse reacted, the therapist was able to guide him through those feelings and help him understand them as they were happening.

Because horses are so large, the kids are hyperaware of their actions and behaviors in the arena and are less likely to react to their emotions.

One fifteen year old who was used to bullying people into getting what he wanted tried to bully a horse by yelling at him and pulling on his harness. This obviously upset the horse, which pulled away and fought the young man. It wasn’t until the boy calmed down—and calmed the horse down—that he was able to complete the exercise. It was that moment that helped him learn how to control his behavior and better understand his emotions.

If you know a young person or a family who could benefit from Equine Therapy, reach out to our team.

Learn More About Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Topics: Adolescents/Teens, Behavior, Equine Therapy, Animal-Assisted Therapy, Anxiety