by Terry Rogers
As a horse lover herself, Katie Joseph, a psychologist at Stevenson House, was well aware of the power of animals in therapy for young people. She was looking for novel ways to reach some of the youth who were housed at Stevenson House Detention Center.
“We never know how long the kids will be in our facility,” Joseph said. “That means we sometimes only have a short period to reach them. Many of them have been subjected to trauma which makes them less receptive to traditional methods of therapy. I heard about the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH). I met Kelly Boyer at a training, and we came up with this idea from here. We started a pilot program in 2018 and it was so successful, we have continued since then.”
Boyer, who is a therapeutic horse instructor trained in Equine Assisted Learning, works with the young people selected for the program for eight weeks, one day each week. They spend 30 minutes in the classroom and one hour working with the horses. Classes begin with tools for self-regulation using a program designed for children from pre-school to adulthood. The program helps the children to recognize the circumstances they are in and how to know if their reactions are appropriate as well as methods to choose the right reaction.
“For example, when they are in the gym, it is okay to run around and be out of control,” Joseph said. “But when they are in the classroom, running around, outbursts and other actions are not appropriate. We focus on a growth mindset, teaching them to see their mistakes and realize that a mistake does not mean failure, but provides us with a way to learn and grow.”
The skills the young people learn in the classroom that are then put in practice with the horses helps the young people learn trust, respect and a sense of community.
“Horses are very intuitive animals,” Boyer said. “They are very aware of their environment and how people are feeling. A horse gives instant feedback and we teach the kids how to read the horse’s body language, such as if their ears are up, laid back or turned to the side. We teach them how to approach a horse, including not walking directly behind or in front of the animal. Many of the kids in the program have never even seen a horse and they are often frightened. We teach them to overcome that fear as well as how to help each other overcome them. They learn to be supportive of each other, like if another child is struggling, they step in to help.”
In addition to the body language and how to approach an animal that can weigh between 800 and 2,000 pounds depending on the breed, the young people are also taught grooming and how their every action impacts the horse. Boyer explained that safety is the number one skill stressed in the class.
“When a horse is excited, the kids are taught how to calm them down which, in turn, helps them learn methods to calm themselves,” Boyer said. “We move from basic skills like grooming to halter and lead rope training and on to obstacle courses. This includes bales, stubs, a baby pool filled with balls and bottles, anything that the horse may approach and balk at crossing. The kids learn to encourage the horses to overcome their fears through encouragement. At the end of the eight weeks, we have a horse show that allows the kids to show what they have learned.”
All participants in the program are required to set specific goals for what they intend to gain from the program. Some develop skills that could be used in the job market, especially if they are close to adulthood. They may learn animal first aid while others may develop skills that would be appropriate in working on a horse farm.
“Over the long term, kids are more confident,” Joseph said. “They are positively focused, and they come back to the facility to talk to their peers about the program. They are excited about what they are learning, and it is something they can celebrate. They have more hope and more tools in their toolbox to deal with the things they must face. The teachers see better emotional control as well.”
According to Joseph, 94 percent of those who have completed the program have met or exceeded the goals they set. Young people are chosen for the program based on how long they will be in the facility and the number of children who are eligible. Each program can have up to six in a group and they do two groups each spring, summer and fall. There is no program in the winter as cold weather can be difficult for both the kids and the horses.