“I’ve often said there is nothing better for the inside of the man than the outside of the horse,” is a quote attributed to President Ronald Reagan. For children and teens with emotional and behavioral difficulties, working with horses often contributes to positive treatment outcomes.
That’s why The Barry Robinson Center partners with Circle A Home for Horses, a nonprofit organization in Virginia Beach that rescues horses destined for slaughter and provides therapeutic activities for emotionally challenged youth.
The Center’s equine outings provide some residents with a valuable experience that supports treatment goals. In a six-week program, selected residents participate in activities such as grooming, feeding, haltering and leading a horse, alongside one of the Center’s certified recreational therapists. Doing these activities together provides the therapist and resident with a milieu that allows them to work on building skills the Center’s treatment team has identified for the resident.
Allyson Hagan, CTRS, and director of activities at the Center, said the equine outings produce many positive results. Building trust, maintaining a safe environment, developing nonverbal and verbal communication skills, and building healthy attachments are all covered during the program.
As they progress through the program, starting with touring the horse barn and learning safety procedures, residents gradually develop a relationship with the horse they interact with. During the last session, the youth usually are able to mount and ride the horse around the paddock.
“Working with a horse can help a child learn how to give and receive love and attention,” Hagan explained. “They get to see and experience what that really looks like.”
Alicia Mahar founded Circle A Home for Horses and has witnessed powerful connections develop between youth and these rescued horses. Therapists and equine experts recognize that horses typically are non-judgmental and very adept at mirroring the attitudes and behaviors of the humans they’re working with.
“Kids totally take down their armor and express their real feelings,” she explained. “Working with these rescued horses helps them feel loved and needed. And very often, as the kids begin to heal, so do the horses.”
Mahar described one adolescent with severe depression, whose said his goal was, “I don’t want to try to kill myself.” As they walked into the horse barn, she encouraged him to greet one of the horses. Reluctant, the teen said even a horse wouldn’t like him. But he put out his hand, and when the horse “planted her head in his hand, he let it all out and began crying. He hugged the horse, and truly felt acceptance and love in that moment. It was an amazing breakthrough.”
Another young girl with trauma issues experienced many bad days and was always guarded around people. But when working with a horse she came to love, “she smiled like we’d never seen before.”