How Horses Help Kids
Six Areas Research Show That Horses Benefit Children
In a time where adolescents are being diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders at an alarming rate, solutions to this epidemic need to be tackled head-on. Anxiety, depression and suicide are being seen more frequently in the adolescent population. Alternative forms of counseling, such as equine-assisted therapy, need to be integrated into a child’s life before they enter the natural hardships of adolescence. Equine-assisted therapy provides a safe and healthy outlet that builds self-esteem and confidence to instill the tools needed for a child to successfully navigate their adolescent years and beyond.
Research demonstrates equine-assisted therapy yields a variety of psychotherapeutic benefits including self-confidence, self-efficacy, self-concept, communication, trust, perspective, anxiety reduction, decreased isolation, self-acceptance, improved locus of control, assertiveness, boundaries, connection to others and spiritual. Additionally, benefits of equine-assisted therapy have shown evidenced-based efficacy in children and adolescents with depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders, conduct disorders, dissociative disorders, autism, and other chronic mental illnesses. Below are six areas that show that children therapeutically benefit from developing a relationship with the horse. Quotes are taken from youth identified as at risk who were interviewed after participating in a two-week long horsemanship program at the YMCA Storer Camp, located in Jackson, Michigan.
Children enter our world attached to an umbilical cord. They know what it means to trust someone else will provide their primitive needs. One can argue, the saddest moment is when a child’s innate ability to trust is violated. The child who has experienced abuse, abandonment or neglect often has extreme difficulty in trusting others–for good reason. The horse allows children to enter into a safe relationship where trust is intangibly tangible. The horse offers a child the chance to begin to restore their faith in others and re-establish their instinctual ability to trust. A 12-year-old explained trust brilliantly. “I was afraid he wanted to hurt me, but he didn’t. I trust him now.”
We all know our self-esteem has the ability to increase when we step out of our comfort zone and allow ourselves to feel unwanted emotions such as anxiety or fear. When we feel these emotions and do not panic or retract back to our safe place, we are able to gain healthy pride in ourselves. Horses have an incredible ability to compassionately push us out of our comfort zones. One child said it best, “I didn't realize how hard it would be to really create a relationship with your horse here…. Being on a horse forces you to be out of your comfort zone. You can jump off when you’re scared, but ultimately, you have to stay on your horse and overcome the fear.”
Teaching children the concept of non-verbal communication is a demanding task. Horses’ sensitivity to non-verbal communication naturally develops a greater sense of awareness in children’s body language, emotions and the vital role non-verbal communication plays in our relationships. One child stated, “I don’t speak horse, but my horse speaks to me.”
Mastering a new skill of any sort enhances a child’s confidence in their abilities; mastering a skill that involves a 1,000 pound animal that potentially elicits fear in a child – that leads to life-lasting change. A 14-year-old girl said it perfectly. “Horses force me to use my voice. I cannot be shy around them or they will walk all over me. I know I need to stand up for myself in school more and need to use the same voice I do for my horse.” Another 16-year-old girl stated, “Horses have shown me that I am able to be a leader and my voice can be heard. I think the biggest thing that I have learned from my horse is that you cannot be shy in the saddle.”
The moment we domesticate a wild animal, it is our responsibility to guarantee their needs are met. As adults, we know the profound responsibility that comes with caring for a horse. Children also have the aptitude of taking ownership for their horse and in turn begin to understand what being responsible truly means: “Having to feed, water, clean, saddle and ride a horse makes you see that working hard is important even if no one is watching and if there is not an award given. I am responsible for taking care of my horse which means getting out of bed early and working hard no matter what.” – Jake, 13-year-old
When Jake was asked specifically to talk about the effect horses have had in his life, he answered: “That's easy – responsibility. Taking care of my horse has taught me to work hard even when no one else is watching you.”
Few things in this world demand our patience like partnership with a horse. When this living creature has the same bad and good days like we do, it can become quite frustrating when our horse has woken up on the wrong side of the bed. It can be even more frustrating when we do not speak the horse language perfectly and cannot understand what is in fact bothering them. Patience is required to develop an honest relationship with a horse. We must mirror the compassionate patience they have with us. This skill of practicing patience is easily transferred into different areas of a child’s life. Jamie, a 15-year-old girl said it wonderfully. “Knowing that I can tame and ride a 1,000 pound beast with nothing but patience and trust helps me realize that all the tasks I have in school or at home really are not as intimidating as they seem.”
About the Author
Megan Repass, MS, LADAC-II, CCM, EAGALA-C, is the director of Equine Therapy, Milestones at Onsite. She is a mental health therapist, licensed addictions counselor and certified adventure therapist.
Reprinted with Permission