By Summer Jenkins
“Why horses? How will working with horses help my son or daughter?” These are questions I have been asked many times. As the program manager for the Heritage Schools Equine Therapy Programs, I have worked with hundreds of kids in equine therapy sessions. Here are seven of the many ways I have seen horses help kids:
- Working with horses is a healthy recreational outlet. It doesn’t matter who we are. Doing something fun, exciting and physical is good for us. Many of my students have picked up unhealthy coping skills as a way of dealing with the challenges they face in their lives. These unhealthy skills may include drug or alcohol use, unhealthy amounts of screen time, hanging out with peers who have a poor influence on them, or just not being engaged in anything at all. We don’t break old habits unless we have something to replace them with. Riding is fun. They can continue to ride long after their time at Heritage.
- Horses are bigger than we are! Once my students learn they have the power to control something bigger, stronger and sometimes more stubborn than they are, they start to understand the power they have to control their own lives. They are able to begin to believe they can control things bigger than they are such as additions, loss, abuse, physiological issues and more.
- Horses mirror emotions. When I put a student on a horse, the horse will often mirror the mood or emotion the student is feeling. This means the horse starts to act like the student. All of a sudden these kids have to deal with themselves! It is the only therapeutic tool of its kind I am aware of. A student may have way too much energy, so the horse starts to get excited and not pay attention and all he wants to do is run amuck! Here is a kid who now has to respond to this and use his energy to slow that horse down, give his full attention to get the horse to behave and complete the lesson. Or I may have a student who has a hard time putting forth the effort it takes to accomplish a task. Now that student has a horse that is just not willing to move unless the student really digs deep and puts in the effort to wake up that horse, stay present and be determined to get that horse to move.
- Horses help build emotional bonds and attachments. Some people are just able to love an animal so much quicker than they can people. These kids bond with their horses, and we can transfer those feelings and emotions to bonding with people. Slowly but surely we can get them to recognize those feelings, to express them and to enjoy the associations they have with others.
- Horses teach us to trust. Most people might think I mean it teaches them to trust the horse and that is part of it. But the real benefit is they learn to trust themselves. The word we use for this is building “Self-efficacy.” It means they really believe they can do something, and the important part is it is true! They really are capable of doing this. They feel it! They can do it! What a great feeling.
- Horses teach us respect. Horses are very honest creatures. They give back what we put into the relationship. They don’t care if we have the latest new shoes or live in a fancy house. They don’t care if we dress like our friends or what mistakes we have made in our past. They teach us what really matters is how we treat others. If we treat them well, they will meet you at the gate each morning wanting to be with you. If you don’t, well, they’ll let you know that too.
- Horses teach us to enjoy work. We can’t just jump up on a horse’s back and go for a ride. We have to feed them, clean up after them, exercise them, brush them, give them water, learn to put their tack on, learn to clean the tack, scrub out the water buckets when they are dirty, etc. Whenever we do a work project in the barn, I am always surprised by how many kids want to help. They want to work! They’ll volunteer to come out to bathe their horses, pick out their feet, move hay, rake the alleyways and even clean the stalls. I’ve got kids who would sleep in my hayloft if I’d let them. What do they get out of it? A sense of accomplishment. The joy of mastering something. The thrill of productivity. A reason to say, “Look what I did.”
I could go on and on and maybe I will in my next blog. I’ve only scratched the surface of what horses do for kids. They teach us so much about ourselves and why we make the choices we do.
The first day I work with a student I walk through the barn and introduce them to all the horses. I tell them a little bit about each horse in the barn: “Frey is our biggest horse, but he is always kind. Willow is our matriarch mare. She thinks she is the mom of the herd. Scout has a hard time trusting people …” Then, I let them pick one of the horses and I ask,” Why did you pick this horse?” Right then the therapeutic journey has begun. Which horse will your son or daughter pick?