How do Horses Help Kids with Emotional and Behavioral Issues?
Kids with emotional and behavioral issues can be difficult to work with. Most of them are slow to trust adults, and may be unwilling to trust anyone at all. In addition, if the emotional or behavioral issues are caused by abuse, the child could be angry and prone to emotional outbursts. Cognitive therapy that includes an equine assisted program can be of great benefit to this type of person.
There are several aspects of cognitive/equine-assisted therapy that work well with kids who have emotional and behavioral issues. One of the simplest aspects is diversion. When a young person is focused on grooming, feeding, or exercising a horse, his focus is no longer on his own issues and problems. Far from being a “means of escape”, caring for the horse provides an often-needed respite for the person’s emotions and intellect. It can actually help the person feel refreshed and energized because the mind has been allowed to “rest” from its current problems.
In order to properly care for a horse, new skills have to be developed. The process of developing these skills can help kids who are especially impatient, anxious, or have low self-confidence. Open communication between counselor and client is important when the client is learning new skills. The young person is reassured that learning these skills takes time, and it’s ok if he doesn’t get things right the first time. Skill development gives the young person a safe environment in which to make mistakes. He or she may have a parent or sibling who’s very critical and unforgiving of mistakes, so equine therapy sessions can be an excellent tool for counteracting the criticism. Feelings of fear, frustration, or anxiety can be validated by the therapist, teaching the young person that these feelings are healthy while he’s developing appropriate coping mechanisms. As the young person gets better and better at caring for the horse, his confidence often increases. Some of the skills, like learning to walk or tack a horse, can be learned fairly quickly and give the young person an immediate (albeit small) taste of success. This gives the therapist a tangible foundation upon which to build.
The open communication that’s needed when learning new skills enables the therapist to “teach by example” as he communicates with his client. The young person will likely get frustrated, giving the therapist an opportunity to discuss – and model – appropriate ways to express emotions. The communication between the therapist and horse professional can provide this same kind of example as well. The young person may live in an environment where people yell when they disagree. During equine assisted therapy, the therapist and horse professional could provide real-life evidence that it’s possible (and more productive) for people to talk instead of yell.
Spending time at an equine assisted program will require some planning and scheduling, which is another benefit of this type of therapy. Many kids who have emotional and behavioral issues struggle with scheduling activities. For some, they simply don’t like the structure; they want to do what they want, when they want. Scheduling tasks can help them begin to learn the benefit of setting and sticking to a schedule. For other kids, they like schedules but get very upset when the schedule is changed. Caring for an animal – even for a few hours – requires some flexibility. Animals can be unpredictable; if your horse makes a quick get-a-way through an open gate, your entire schedule has to be rearranged. Setting a schedule for the session can teach a young person how to set a schedule but also how to keep realistic expectations and how to rearrange a schedule when things don’t go the way you’d planned.
A child’s responses to the horses can also provide excellent insight into the child’s opinions of self and of others, especially authority figures.
Equine assisted therapy offers kids with emotional and behavioral issues a safe environment in which to work through issues of fear, anxiety, self-doubt, and poor communication. By teaching the child how to work with and communicate with the horse, the therapist will be indirectly teaching the child how to apply these same skills in inter-personal relationships.