Wilderness Programs

Wilderness Therapy Programs

Private Boarding Schools

Therapeutic Boarding Schools

Teen Residential Treatment Centers

Special Education Day Schools

Outpatient Therapy for Teens

Troubled Teen Summer Camps

Educational Consultant Assistance

NEW! Girls Boarding Schools

Troubled Teen Help








Equine-Assisted 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 manner
  • 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 self
  • Develops social skills
  • Teaches better communication skills
  • Promotes both teamwork and individual leadership


About Us    

Articles and Tips   Home     Contact Us

Click here to advertise with the National Youth Network

© National Youth Network
privacy policy