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Equine Therapy: How Horses Help Troubled Teens Build Better Lives

By Hugh C. McBride

Some therapists guide their patients through structured processes in clinical environments, while others engage clients in more casual conversations in settings that range from home offices to wilderness trails.

A third type prefers to hang around stables while their clients groom and feed them.

For decades, horses have been employed in therapeutic programs throughout the United States, where they have helped thousands of people overcome serious physical and emotional challenges. For adolescents who suffer from social or developmental disorders, equine therapy can offer life-changing opportunities to work through internal struggles and rebuild positive interpersonal relationships.

“The relationship created between the troubled teenager and the horse can be one of the greatest assets of having equine therapy,” Luke Hatch, executive director of Turn-About Ranch, wrote in an article on the program’s website. “This bond can help change the life of an adolescent.”

About Equine Therapy

To some, the idea of horses as therapists may smack of New Age-y pseudo-science, but history tells us that these majestic animals have served in therapeutic and rehabilitative roles for centuries.

Documents from ancient Greece suggest that the concept of horse-assisted therapy dates to at least 600 BC, and the first modern research into the ability of horses to assist with physical recovery was conducted in the late 1800s.

In the 20th century, equine therapy was initially focused on individuals with physical injuries and handicaps, such as wounded soldiers or people who were afflicted with polio. The concept gained considerable renown in 1952, when a partially paralyzed woman became the first female competitor to win an Olympic medal in an equestrian sport. Lis Hartel, a Danish athlete who had contracted polio eight years earlier, earned a silver medal in dressage during the Helsinki Olympics (an accomplishment she matched at the 1956 games).

Hartel’s successes prompted an interest in hippotherapy (physical rehabilitation on horseback), with the practice becoming more commonplace in the United States and Canada over the subsequent decades. By 1969, organizations such as the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled, the Cheff Center for the Handicapped, and the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association were all advocating on behalf of hippotherapy as well as the ability of horses to help individuals with social, emotional, and developmental disorders.

In the 1990s, therapists at Turn-About Ranch in Escalante, Utah, pioneered the practices and principles of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which led to the development of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

Today, horse-assisted therapy has become an effective component of many programs designed to help adolescents and teenagers who are in crisis.

Helping Troubled Teens

Imposing yet gentle, perceptive yet nonjudgmental, horses can help troubled teens gain essential insights into their inner demons and innate strengths.

As Kathy Krupa, the founder of an equine therapy program in New Jersey, told New York Times reporter Bill Finley, “A horse couldn’t care less if someone has been in jail or has a learning disability. They only judge you by how you are at the moment. You’re even allowed to be afraid around a horse as long as you admit that you’re afraid. I’ve seen a horse walk right up to a terrified kid and put their heads in their chests.”

Copper Canyon Academy, a boarding school for troubled teen and pre-teen girls in Rimrock, Arizona, employs equestrian therapy as part of its comprehensive effort to help girls overcome a wide range of social and emotional challenges. The licensed professionals at Copper Canyon use horses as co-therapists in an effort to help girls develop greater empathy and nurturing abilities while redefining themselves and their purpose in the world around them.

“Animals don’t lie, manipulate, or cheat,” the CCA website reports. “As students work with the animals, they begin to realize that lying, manipulating and cheating don’t work; they begin to form bonds and to expand their horizons beyond themselves.”

Building Better Lives

Sierra Tucson, an internationally recognized program for teenagers with addictions and behavioral disorders, also incorporates equine therapy to help patients identify unhealthy behavior patterns and learn to establish and develop positive relationships. According to the Sierra website, equine therapy can be particularly effective because “horses are typically non-judgmental and have no expectations or motives. … The horse assists in making patients aware of their emotional state as the horse responds in reaction to their behavior.”

This ability of horses to help patients identify healthy and unhealthy behaviors in themselves was one of the aspects that equine therapist Franklin Levinson cited as among the most beneficial components of the practice.

“[A horse reacts] as a mirror to the person who’s with him,” Levinson said in an interview with Julie Brown that appeared in Your Horse magazine. “A horse will become very fearful if he’s with someone who’s aggressive, noisy, disrespectful or too controlling. On the other hand, if the person makes requests rather than demands the horse will begin to cooperate. He is always looking for a leader.”

To Nancy Jarrell, the assistant clinical director of Sierra Tucson, the “magical encounter between horse and human” remains both motivating and mysterious. Writing in the May 31, 2005 edition of Counselor magazine, Jarrell noted that her years of equine-related experiences and observations have done nothing to diminish the inspiration she draws from the impact horses can have in the lives of trouble teens.

“I continue to be awed when I repeatedly observe the horse respond to a client in a way that specifically targets his or her issue that yearns for healing,” she wrote.

[This article originally appeared on the Equine Therapy website.]