Psychotherapy for Teens
by Julie K. Trevelyan
Equine Coordinator, Aspen Ranch
Using horses as a tool
to promote emotional growth in struggling teenagers is a phenomenon
gaining numbers and national recognition. At Aspen Ranch,
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is the bedrock of the
therapeutic treatment program. Many of our students arrive
here without prior horse background, which does not matter
for EAP. Whether a complete equine novice or an expert rider,
EAP offers a unique, challenging, and often fun form of experiential
therapy that all our students respond to in one way or another.
EAP is a collaborative effort
between a licensed therapist and an equine specialist in which
the goal is to generate a positive engagement with the students
utilizing an experiential, animal-based modality. Students
at Aspen Ranch learn about themselves and others by participating
in structured activities with the horses, then processing
their feelings, behaviors, and patterns. EAP essentially reveals
insights through analogy and metaphor. By relating their experiences
with the horses to other people and issues in their lives,
our students can begin to examine their negative behaviors
and understand how to change them into positive behaviors.
Some of the benefits of EAP are listed in Figure 1.
Why a horse? Plenty of reasons.
Horses first and foremost are large animals. Learning to safely
and effectively work around a creature weighing in at 1000
pounds or more requires patience, trust, compassion, awareness,
and self-confidence. Gaining or enhancing these traits alone
can be quite an accomplishment. Horses have the added benefit
of being very social creatures, with a strict hierarchy and
societal rules that are very similar to human communities.
By relating, for example, the pecking order that is found
among horses to the pecking orders that exist in various human
situations, including at Aspen Ranch, students learn whether
they are leaders or followers and the strengths of both positions.
Horses also have very clear-cut personalities. An interesting
factor of working with horses is that most students tend to
choose to work with an animal that is almost exactly like
them in personality characteristics. This can be an effective
tool for understanding self and how others relate to self.
Perhaps the most important aspect of using horses in therapy
is that they are consummately honest creatures. In a group
of humans and horses, horses will always win the "most
honest" contest. A horse's inability to lie can be invaluable
in seeing what a student may be attempting to hide or manipulate.
Horses' body language, by which they communicate 99% of their
feelings and actions, can reveal a student's real self and
begin to break down barriers and communication blocks.
Aside from the distinctive use
of 1200-pound animals as a therapeutic tool, the ability to
escape from four office walls is very effective in quickly
reaching the heart of a student's issues. The corral or pasture
provides a natural setting that is different from the office
in that the students do not feel as closely watched or focused
on by their therapist. Often during an EAP session, students
do not realize or acknowledge that therapy is actually occurring.
A student who may be able to control or skirt around a situation
during office therapy will find it much more difficult to
do so when presented with living horses who have a mind of
their own and aren't afraid to expose the student's real self.
Another benefit of EAP is that the activities inherently demand
an immediate reaction from the students. From the first moment
they are presented with a horse, students use the same coping
mechanisms as they do with other stressful factors in their
lives. Therefore, students' issues usually rise to the surface
much more quickly during EAP than they do in the office, and
thus the issues can be dealt with sooner.
Horses are most effectively used
in EAP as metaphors for life, attitudes, and behaviors. For
example, students may be asked to make a horse go over a jump
set up in the arena, which sounds simple until the rules are
stated: No touching the horse whatsoever; cannot use a lead
rope or halter; cannot bribe the horse with food real or imagined;
there will be a consequence for every rule broken. When the
activity starts, students discover how difficult it can be
to complete the task. Issues such as anger management, frustration,
control, and others can quickly rear up and provide interesting
fodder for a discussion afterward. Students are also asked
to relate the activity to themselves by deciding who was represented
by the horse, by the students, by the activity itself. Oftentimes,
students decide that they were the horse and that their parents
were represented by themselves. Students sometimes will have
a better appreciation for what their parents may have gone
through in trying to get them to do what their parents want!
When parents come to visit their
children at Aspen Ranch, they are introduced to the concept
of using horses therapeutically by actually participating
in activities themselves. One simple but powerful demonstration
of how EAP uses horses is to ask the parents how best to make
the horse move forward: Should they pull with all their might
on the lead rope and demand that the horse follow them? Hold
onto the end of the rope and let the horse mostly wander where
it will? Stand in front of the horse and extend a hand in
hopes that the horse will walk forward by its own choice?
Stand directly behind the horse and wave their arms at it?
The best place, of course, is
at the horse's side, quietly and gently holding the lead rope
and guiding the horse while walking by its side the entire
time. Yanking on the horse can cause it to become stubborn
and defy the person leading it. Letting the horse wander freely
can allow too much space in which the horse can get into trouble
or run afoul of dangers. Hoping that the horse will choose
to move forward when the parent is in front of it is a common
but inaccurate attempt; inaccurate because the parent is actually
blocking the horse's path and, in effect, saying "stop."
Getting behind the horse to make it move is a very effective
method, but that can also be scary; who knows where the horse
will go or what it will do if set free with no restrictions?
When next telling the parents that the horse represents their
child, the parents can quickly and easily understand how EAP
works through metaphor and begin to perhaps see how their
actions have precipitated their child's reactions. The power
of using a horse as a therapeutic tool cannot be underestimated
in such a situation.
All the staff at Aspen Ranch
work together so that the students can learn to change their
approach to their lives, act in more positive ways, and understand
themselves better. Between staff, therapists, and peers, students
at Aspen Ranch have a strong set of tools to utilize in their
journeys to more complete selves. And with their equine friends
available to open their eyes to even greater possibilities,
Aspen Ranch students have a remarkable chance of achieving
their goals and finding their wings to fly.
Figure 1. Benefits of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy
- Breaks down defense barriers
- Time effective
- Challenges students in a non-threatening
- The horse is a non-judgmental, honest friend
- Promotes a motivating learning environment
- Builds the therapeutic relationship
- Enhances problem-solving skills
- Provides immediate cause-and-effect situations
- Decreases feelings of hopelessness
- Stimulates creativity
- Encourages responsibility
- Captivates and holds attention
- Helps teach empathy
- Empowers and gives a sense of control over
- Develops social skills
- Teaches better communication skills
- Promotes both teamwork and individual leadership