A kind of magic happens when a desperately unhappy child is brought to the country to interact with horses. A change of environment, especially from an urban area to open, natural surroundings, filled with fresh air and flooded with sunshine, can have an uplifting and calming effect, and with time, a troubled teen can begin to let go of a lot of pent-up, negative emotions.
When teenagers first arrive at an equine program, they are often withdrawn and angry. Their relationships have been negative – but the relationship they will experience with a horse will be completely different from any other. Horses and other animals are completely honest in their encounters, and for many teens this will be the first interaction they have ever had in which they can honestly be themselves.
Equine-Assisted Therapy is an experiential therapy that is particularly effective with children and troubled teens. Horses are naturally social animals with personalities, attitudes, fears, and moods, and they are very sensitive to the energy around them. They will respond appropriately to human interaction, allowing teens to experience a sense of connection and participation without the negative feelings sometimes associated with traditional therapy. Horses and teenagers are seeking the same feelings of trust and connection, and once a child realizes this similarity, he or she is able to form a connection that is uplifting and inspiring. Horses are able to teach teenagers about themselves and their interaction with others around them.
A horse will react with fear to any expression of anger, bullying, or frustration, functioning as a mirror in which a teen can immediately see the effect of their emotions and attitudes. Horses have no guile or deceit – they respond negatively to negative emotions, positively to positive emotion. They do not respond to bullying, yelling, or aggression, and this forces teens to find other ways of communication. Because horses are non-judgmental, do not have an agenda, and are always honest, it is much easier for teenagers to let down their guard and recognize their own dysfunctional behavior. When teenagers work with horses, they are able to gain insight into their emotions and behavior and have a non-threatening opportunity to immediately find a more productive, positive way of interacting.
Each time a teenager learns another skill, his or her self-confidence and trust increases. Teens learn how to control and redirect their anger because they have a stake in the outcome – they do not want to upset or hurt a horse they have come to care about! The intrinsic innocence of the horse reinforces the need for teenagers to identify other ways to express their emotions to achieve positive, productive results. When a teenager encounters a horse’s behavior that confuses them, they must learn how to put themselves in another’s place and try to figure out what the horse is experiencing – and then find the most efficient way to proceed.
Horses are large, very powerful animals, and they can be unpredictable and intimidating. Approaching, interacting, and mounting a horse forces a person to confront any fear and insecurities they may have. Teens will learn how to keep their fear under control, how to remain calm, and how to move forward with positive feelings despite any underlying lack of confidence. They will also discover the exhilaration of horseback riding, especially if fear has prevented participation in physical activities in the past. The ability to remain calm and complete a task regardless of self-doubt and fear is an extremely empowering experience. Once a teenager gains insight into how to effectively work with a horse, he or she will become the leader. This causes the horse to feel a sense of safety and trust, and it allows the teenager to experience their abilities and potential. Teenagers will discover a significant sense of self-esteem as they continue to work and communicate in harmony with the horse.
Learning how to care for and ride a horse increases the bond between the rider and horse. The more consistent the teenager is, the more attentive and cooperative the horse becomes. In this way, teenagers learn life skills, such as effective and positive communication, trust, and how to control their anger and frustration.
The kind of relationship humans have with horses is calming and often healing. Teenagers become engaged in this unique interaction, and it brings them out of their inner cycle of negative thoughts. Working with horses may be the first time for some teens that they have ever experienced an emotionally powerful bond of affection and loyalty that is unconditional. Teens learn how to be responsible – and how being responsible can make a person feel good. Experiencing this kind of unique, inter-species bond can have a life-changing effect.