Sunday, June 4, 2017

Horses and Healing

When I did research for a novel about a San Diego teen who spends the summer on a Kentucky horse farm, I was amazed to learn about the powerful effects horses have on humans. For example, would you ever guess troubled teens, autistic children, and prison inmates have something in common? People in each of these groups are forming unique relationships with horses that allow each to heal. The bond is unlike anything achieved from counseling, medication, medical interventions and living behind bars.

Teens who exhibit risky behavior such as bullying, fighting, taking or selling drugs, stealing or joining a gang are at risk for dropping out of  school, or worse, going to jail. Some come from broken homes with absentee parents and some have experienced abuse, been victims of bullying, or have an untreated disability. Many turn to drugs to numb the pain and confusion and to fit in with peers. 

When a troubled teen works with and forms a relationship with a horse, they feel accepted for who they are. Since animals don't judge, challenge or accuse, and they have no knowledge of a person's background, the relationship is genuine, allowing the troubled young person to let down his defenses and get in touch with his humanity. Self-esteem improves and the teen begins to open up and release some of the anger that motivates him to act out. The horse's non-judgmental approach can also serve as a positive model for the teen who's reeling against authority and his situation.

Teens who have lost a family member may feel guilty or depressed and want to avoid family and friends, which can place them at risk for social, emotional and medical problems. Their response to the death is to shut off feelings and avoid anyone who might trigger them. 

When working with a horse, a young person can find solace and peace that may not be as easy to attain with other people. The horse's nonverbal communication allows space for acceptance and validation of whatever feelings the teen brings to the relationship. In time, they can work through the grief and gain confidence to open up emotionally, accept the death and even forgive themselves for any lingering guilt.   

The Spring Reins of Life program is one of many that incorporates Equine Assisted Psychoterapy (EAP) into working with troubled teens: 

Children with autism face a variety of challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. Other areas of mental and social development may be affected as well, depending on the severity of illness. A 2015 study conducted by researchers in Colorado and North Carolina demonstrates the effects of therapeutic horse riding on children with autism, when compared to children with autism who only learned about horses, but didn't interact with them over the same period. The riders had better scores on language and social interaction, and greater improvement with hyperactivity and irritability. The results on irritability were "about half" the effect one might expect from medication. 

Since horses respond to the nonverbal body language of the rider and adjust accordingly, the child with autism can experience a sense of balance and kinship to put him at ease. The researchers believe the learning and calming effect of riding a horse can enhance self-esteem and communication in everyday life. One parent whose 11-year-old child with autism is also deaf put her son on a horse when he was three years old. The mother feels the riding has helped him to improve his core strength and senses of sight, smell and touch. 

Prison inmates represent a unique group benefiting from equine assisted therapy thanks to the efforts of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation (TRF). This is an organization that funds 24 facilities, some with prisoners, and many more individuals to care for thousands of horses retiring from the track. 

The reality is that horses are expensive animals and many owners are not able to maintain them after their career has ended. Unfortunately, the TRF reports 10,000 American racehorses are shipped to slaughter in Canada and Mexico each year, and TRF "is determined to change that." 

Photo: Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation
Nine state prisons around the country participate in the TRF Second Chances Program which is a partnership effort allowing TRF to access state land and prison volunteers to create horse sanctuaries. Most of the horses suffered injuries that ended their careers. With the supervised care they receive from prisoners, they can recover and experience second lives as pets, in equine competition, as police mounts and in equine-assisted therapy programs. 

Inmates from a wide range of backgrounds learn about horse anatomy, caring for injuries, equine nutrition and stable management. They receive a certificate upon completion of the rigorous program and some secure jobs as farriers, vet assistants and caretakers. But not surprising, the prisoners gain much more because of the trust and love they experience with a horse. They build confidence and a sense of empathy that can turn their lives around. Studies have also documented a reduction in recidivism rates at the facilities that host the program. 

News Story on Indiana Second Chances Prison Program

A few years ago, I visited Montpelier, the James Madison estate in Virginia which is a TRF farm with 40-50 thoroughbreds. Some are rescue horses and others come straight from the track with injuries. All are quite beautiful in the pristine setting. I'm attaching a few pictures here. If you're inclined, the TRF depends upon grants and donations to run their farms and Second Chances Program:  Make A Gift to TRF


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