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Equine Therapy: What is it about Horses and their capacity to help troubled teens?

December 13, 2011

Many animals offer humans an opportunity for deep and complex bonding experiences.  But what makes a horse different from other animals in the healing of human beings?

A horse, although big and powerful, is a prey animal.  It is not a predator or a carnivore.  It has been preyed upon by other animals and human beings throughout history.  On top of that, what makes the horse unique is the horses’ ability to carry a rider.  This provides a unique opportunity for a collaboration between the human and the horse.  The goal of a human-equine relationship is harmony and balance.  “Bonding with a horse gives the gift of balance to one’s life:  physical, emotional and spiritual.  The unspoken communication, which serves as therapy in the form of touch between human and horse, can open your heart and heal your body and mind.”  (Chaia King, horse woman and daughter of Larry King)

Several months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a training in Equine Co-Facilitated Psychotherapy, specifically in relationship to working with troubled teens.  It is based on Carolyn Resnick’s “Seven Waterhole Rituals.”  The trainers were Chad Lyman, Kevin Knutson and Brandon Burr, who, together direct a program called Equine Journeys in Loa, Utah.

Parenting a child is very much like having a relationship with a horse.  The teen’s relationship with the horse is a metaphor for the teen’s relationship with other human beings.  And the horses’ relationship to the teen is a metaphor for the teen’s relationship to the parents.

As I said above, the horse is a prey animal.  It’s primary need is for safety.  A horse must trust you to give of themselves.  Developing that trust is the responsibility of the human being.  It requires communicating clearly and consistently, being authoritative, rather than authoritarian, permissive or negligent.  (Concept developed by Diana Baumrind over 50 years ago.)  The human must lead and caretake, with gentleness and kindness.  They must develop a relationship of mutuality with the horse.

The child is very much like a prey animal.  A child is vulnerable and dependent for their survival on the adults around them.  To feel safe and secure the child needs the protection, leadership and guidance of the parent .  Children need the same thing from the parent that the horse needs from its human.

It is all about the relationship.  Horse and teen.  Teen and parent.

  • Horses and children seek leadership and continually test the leader/parent for leadership worthiness.  Both will displace an unworthy leader through aggressive or disrespectful behavior and then continue the search for a worthy leader.
  • There are three types of horses and children:  leaders, dominators and submissives.
  • Lead horses and parents provide protection and watch over the safety and needs of the herd/children.
  • Horses and children must learn to watch and obey the lead horse/parent to stay safe.
  • Dominant and submissive horses and children test the lead horse/parent for worthiness.  Testing occurs through misbehavior.  A lead horse/parent found to be unworthy is disrespected and displaced.
  • Lead horses and parents must continually assert their leadership in order to remain in a position of respect.
  • Horses and children who do not learn to watch and obey the lead horse or parents usually end up caught and/or eaten/in jail or dead.
  • The only true bond is from a place of freedom.  (Lyman, Knutson and Burr)

Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate in their book Hold Onto Your Kids:  Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers address this issue in another way.  When the bond between parent an child is diminished or lost, the kids look to peers for a substitute.  This is disastrous because kids cannot be parents to other kids.  They don’t love and care about them the way a parent does.  They will use them for their own ends.  They don’t have the maturity or wisdom to guide them ethically or morally.  They cannot be lead horses.  They don’t have the experience to nurture and lead these children towards adulthood.  Children and horses will communicate their confusion, their lack of safety and fear by being aggressive, disrespectful, uncooperative and disobedient, if they are not provided with strong consistent leadership/parenting.

  • Horses cannot be manipulated and do not respond to pretense.  A relationship with a horse requires genuineness.
  • Relationships with horses will not tolerate sustained complacency, abuses or neglect like human relationships will.  The horses’ size and power serves to remind the student continually of the risks of a deteriorating relationship and forces continual relationship work in order to maintain relationship safety, security and soundness.
  • Mastery with a horse requires continual investment in the relationship.
  • Horses will forgive legitimate mistakes.
  • In riding relationships, the student needs the horse more than the horse needs the student.  This forces attention toward relationship creation and maintenance due to the interdependence necessary.
  • The lessons taught by the horse tend to be more poignant, meaningful, immediate and situationally on target than human communication.  (Lyman, Knutson, Burr)

Developmentally, teenagers are in a very self-centered universe during adolescence.  Part of the task of maturation is to learn the importance of reciprocity in healthy relationships.  When teenagers lack the necessary attachment to their parental figures, they become vulnerable to peer pressure and are susceptible to unhealthy influences.

Horses succumb to force reluctantly, just as children do.  The rider and the parents delude themselves into thinking that their coercion, bribing and threats are successful.  They may work for a time.  Ultimately, they impede and can ruin the relationship.  A relationship based on force is very different from a relationship based on choice and freedom.

Over the years, many people have shared with me how, during adolescence, being a rider and a horse person saved their lives.  They were responsible to another being who depended on them and who gave them so much in return.  It was a mutual relationship, both giving and getting.

Equine Co-Facilitated Psychotherapy is proving to be an extremely effective form of treatment for teenagers who are struggling in their lives.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 23, 2012 7:56 pm

    Beautiful post, do you know who the photo belongs to Ellen, would love to use it at some point.

  2. July 23, 2013 7:53 pm

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  3. June 5, 2014 4:05 am

    Reblogged this on spacefreedomlove and commented:
    As I’ve mentioned, my therapist is going on vacation for three weeks. My plan for remaining sane and connected is to take horse riding lessons which I haven’t done since I was a child. I am giddy with excitement.

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