The Power of ‘Adopt a Horse’ For Students Who Struggle with Attachment

It was late one afternoon, and Jimmy, a student in the equine therapy program at Heritage, was spending time with his adopted horse, Scout. He was teaching Scout to be comfortable with the body clippers. He had been working on this task for weeks—little by little gaining Scout’s trust. He was showing a great deal of patience and concern for his horse. He wanted his horse to feel safe, and to be comfortable with the task. As time went by, Scout let him get closer to him with the clippers turned on. Then he let him touch him on the neck and body with the clippers running. Before long, Scout was standing still and relaxed, while Jimmy ran the clippers down his horse. Weeks of patient, consistent, persistence paid off. Right from the beginning, Jimmy was drawn to Scout. Scout was a horse that lacked confidence, trust, and training.  Week after week, Jimmy looked forward to his chance to go to the barn to visit his horse Scout, and to build his relationship with him.  He would spend time caring for the needs of his horse, training his horse, grooming him, talking to him, cleaning his stall, and just hanging out. This experience ended up proving to be extremely beneficial for both Jimmy, and his horse.

In the equine therapy program at Heritage, one of the programs is the Adopt a Horse program. Adopt a Horse was designed to help students struggling with reactive attachment disorder or attachment issues to be able to build relationships, heal, to become more understanding, and to develop responsibility and self-confidence. Some feel that it is less stressful and feels safer for people to develop meaningful relationships with animals. As the student learns how to have a healthy relationship with their horse, these skills can later be transferred to the people around them.

According to Promise Village, a therapeutic center in Michigan that has a strong focus on animal assisted and equine therapy, “The animals, in a very real sense, take on the role as therapist with the residents they work with. They enable them to heal emotionally, develop self-confidence, become more empathetic, form attachments, and also develop a safe bond.”

They continue by explaining that “Animals can become safe transitional objects for the residents to attach and form a healthy bond with, while learning to care for and take responsibility for something. The animal can also help them develop empathy and compassion as they develop this relationship. The animal will listen to all of their cares, concerns and worries without exploding or criticism. The uncritical, listening ear that the animal provides helps them learn to trust something, even if initially it is not a person. Ultimately, the goal is for the empathic skills and newly developed ability to trust, be transferred to their relationships with other human beings.”

Students are selected to participate in the Adopt a Horse program at Heritage on therapeutic need. The therapist helps to develop a set of goals for the student to accomplish, and the student can participate in the program until they have achieved those goals, or for the duration of their stay at Heritage if they choose. As the student’s ability to form healthy relationships grows and improves, they also start improving their relationships with the staff they work with in the program, and eventually with the other students and ultimately with their friends and family members at home. While the ideas and concepts behind this program seem simple, the effects have proven to be powerful, and life changing.