Equine Therapy Helps Girls in Residential Treatment
At Havenwood Academy, equine therapy plays a critical role in our residential treatment programs for girls and young women.
Havenwood’s programs are designed to assist girls and young women ages 12 to 17 overcome a variety of mental, emotional and psychological challenges.
Our residential treatment programs use experiential therapies and other specialized therapeutic interventions to address substance abuse and addiction, self-harm and attempted suicide, reactive attachment disorder, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and anger issues, and many other problems that troubled teens commonly experience.
Instead of traditional talk therapy, Havenwood uses equine therapy, also known as equine-assisted psychotherapy, or EAT, as a part of our experiential therapy-based programs.
What Is Equine Therapy?
Equine therapy is a proven treatment approach known for helping troubled and at-risk children and teens in profound ways. The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGLA), a nonprofit organization founded to provide information about this powerful form of treatment, points out that EAT is not about horsemanship or learning to ride.
Instead, it’s about using these dynamic and powerful living creatures to help young women in a multitude of ways. Horses help them to develop a better work ethic and attitude, and improve confidence levels. The girls become more responsible and build skills in nonverbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem-solving, leadership, work ethic, responsibility, teamwork and relationships.
Equine therapy can help with virtually all of the emotional, mental or behavior challenges girls and young women face.
How Havenwood Academy Uses Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT)
Equine assisted psychotherapy is highly effective for helping girls and young women overcome mental, emotional and psychological problems. However, this therapeutic intervention must be implemented according to psychological and ethical guidelines.
At Havenwood Academy, EAT is administered in a carefully controlled setting, following individualized treatment plans. Mental health and equine professionals are responsible for the students’ safety and oversee all student interaction with horses. Our team is also charged with observing the horses’ behavior.
As much as we can learn from observing our students’ transformation when working with the horses, a horse’s behavior tells us much about how a young woman is progressing in her quest to recover.
Animals have been used for centuries in a therapeutic role, thanks to the benefits both humans and animals experience from their relationship. The bond that forms between young women and horses, however, is well-documented as one of the strongest emotional alliances (Roy, 2005).
Why EAT Works Especially Well for Girls and Young Women
Talk therapy interventions, usually some form of cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has a historically low success rate for older children and teenagers. These therapy treatments typically involve a therapist and client sitting together in a clinical environment or formal setting (the counselor’s office, for example) and talking one-on-one about the client’s problems.
The reason that CBT often is ineffective for young people is rooted in several key factors, primary among these is an innate distrust of adults. This level of distrust is exacerbated if a young woman has been victimized by sexual, physical or emotional abuse or abandonment.
Teens may fear that their feelings may be dismissed or that the counselor won’t believe them. In many cases, young women may disassociate from their trauma, experience denial or embarrassment, or be unwilling to verbalize their experiences.
When working with horses, those concerns are eliminated. Communication between a young woman and her horse takes place on a different level, one that involves body language and emotion but few (if any) words. Horsemanship involves physical as well as mental engagement, and the establishment of trust on both sides.
Girls come to understand that horses don’t judge or question them, but they do react to human emotion and body language. Teens can’t manipulate, lie to or bully a horse. Instead, they must come to the relationship in an open and forthright manner, focusing on problem-solving and emotional regulation.
The skills learned while working with horses translate directly to other areas of a girl’s life. She develops a sense of accomplishment and learns to trust, but she also learns how to inspire trust, how to lead by example and how to be accountable for her actions.
Research demonstrates that girls build self-esteem, coping skills, social confidence and heightened self-efficacy through equine therapeutic programs (Kemp et al., 2013).
Working with horses also forces young women to focus on positive intentions rather than dwelling on their own problems. It is here that true healing and empowerment begin to take place.
Conditions That Benefit from Equine Therapies
At-risk behavior in older girls and teens is defined as those actions that place young women at risk for failure in life. At-risk teens may be the children of divorce, victims of abuse or trauma, or those who have endured parental absence, neglect, addiction or mental illness.
These teens have a high likelihood of quitting school, developing psychiatric illness, committing crimes and being incarcerated. They are also often unable to form meaningful friendships or function in social situations.
At-risk teens commonly have problems with emotional control and communication. Many suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anger issues and antisocial behaviors. Girls who are diagnosed as at-risk often abuse alcohol and drugs and experience developmental delays.
Working with horses reduces feelings of isolation in at-risk teens, allowing them to develop responsible, independent behaviors. Research proves that EAT improves both the physical and mental health of at-risk young women (Suarez, 2005).
Research shows that almost 95 percent of child sexual abuse (CSA) is perpetrated by a family member, friend or person the child trusts (Kemp et al., 2013). Because these are the very people that girls and young women should be able to trust, this type of abuse is one of the most damaging and difficult to overcome.
CSA commonly leads to significant behavioral problems, psychopathy, psychological trauma and a variety of comorbid mental and emotional challenges, including depression, anxiety and addiction.
Equine-assisted therapy has been proven to reduce the depression, anxiety, trauma and behavioral problems associated with sexual victimization. Young women also developed a high level of therapeutic alliance and were much less likely to disengage from treatment programs when EAT was used as a component of residential treatment (Kemp et al., 2013).
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Traditional therapeutic models have been shown to be especially ineffective for addressing ADHD. Therapists describe this approach to treating ADHD as attempting to resolve unfinished business by revisiting life events and relationships that may have left them with unresolved conflicts and emotions (Devon, 2011).
By helping girls build self-esteem and self-confidence, equine therapy encourages them to solve problems, develop responsibility and increase interpersonal effectiveness. Each of these skills is proven to help girls with ADHD succeed in school and in social settings. In many cases, these coping skills allow young women to discontinue the potentially dangerous medications prescribed for ADHD.
Emotional and Anger Management
For girls and young women, the challenge of managing runaway emotions, especially anger, can be significant. The research demonstrates that anger signals unmet needs in teens, and left unchecked, can lead to a variety of problems that include violence and addiction (Smith, 2015).
Society discourages the expression of strong emotions and anger in women, leading girls to suppress these feelings rather than address them. This can lead to severe discontent, elevated stress and inappropriate behavior. Working with horses in a therapeutic setting provides a safe space for young women to work through the problems that bring about their anger as well as learn to express and cope with their feelings in a healthy way.
Equine therapy helps teens learn the consequences of unaddressed and unchecked emotion and anger because horses respond to these manifestations immediately, and provide feedback without the emotionality of human reaction (Smith, 2015). To work successfully with a horse, young women learn boundaries and see firsthand how their behaviors affect others.
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia and overeating syndrome are common challenges faced by girls and young women today. Eating disorders, especially in young women, respond poorly to traditional therapeutic interventions. Consequently, researchers have explored the success of other types of treatment, finding exceptional results with experiential therapies, especially equine therapy (Lutter, 2008).
The physicality of equine therapy is a primary contributor to the success of this treatment approach, but the emotional benefits are almost equally important. Adolescent girls are the most likely population to develop comorbid conditions (anxiety, depression and substance abuse, among others) along with eating disorders, and to relapse after treatment (Lutter, 2008). When equine therapy is used, however, research shows that associated mental and emotional disorders decline and the risk of relapse drops significantly.
As a part of equine therapy, girls and young women learn to care for the horses. The activities related to ensuring the animals’ needs are met teach girls the value of self-care and nurturing, skills that most eating disorder sufferers lack.
Research shows that EAT improves the mood and optimism of young women with anorexia and bulimia, helping them learn to trust and take risks. Victims of eating disorders are able to overcome fear, guilt and body shame, allowing them to put their own problems in a new perspective that leads to healing through equine therapy.