For many years, at-risk youth programs have used horses to provide students with a wonderful and powerful life-changing therapeutic experience. Zion Hills Academy residents gain new insights into who they are, based on the relationship they develop with a horse.
Some say a sign of maturity is the ability to see an assigned task through to completion without being monitored. Equine therapy is, at its essence, the maturation process achieved through the development of a relationship with a horse. The skills and attitudes acquired during this process are transferable to all areas of life.
In learning horsemanship, teens learn the essential life skills of communicating, building trust and problem-solving. They master the art of true relationship-building as they learn and develop their horse care and riding skills, then apply and practice what they learn in other relationships to create a successful life.
Horses require work, whether it is caring for them or working with them. They compel people to engage both physically and mentally. Horses have the ability to reflect exactly what human body language tells them. Unlike humans, horses have no hidden agenda or conflicting feelings. Horses never lie and do not hesitate to tell the student “how it is.”
Many teens may start out by thinking, “This horse is stubborn,” or “Why won’t this horse lift his leg so I can clean it’s hoofs. This is so frustrating.” But the lesson to be learned is that, if they change their own approach, the horse responds differently as well. Horses are especially powerful mirrors into our psyche, and as such become accurate messengers of self-knowledge.
They are also incredibly responsive to human emotion and action. They immediately sense and respond to negative emotions and behaviors. For example, a frustrated resident can trigger frustration in her horse. This requires teens to be accountable and to recognize the effects they can have on others.
Horses do not respond well to the forms of communication that many students are accustomed to, such as manipulation, bullying or passive/aggressive behavior. To successfully work with a horse, controlled and effective body language is essential. This approach forces teens to be aware of their methods of communication and to use problem-solving skills when familiar methods don’t produce the desired response. Horses require a rider to focus on and to invest in the relationship. Creativity and bravery are in constant demand for repairing miscommunication. The ground exercises we use in our learning and therapy programs dramatize inner struggles and relationship issues familiar to our students. The horse instinctively shows us what we need to see by magnifying problem areas.
Our work at Zion Hills Academy provides compelling evidence that horses are masterful teachers in family dynamics, social rules, discipline, nurturing, respect and trust. Developing a relationship with a horse allows residents to practice relationship skills without the fear of rejection. The horse assists by making girls aware of their emotional state, as the horse responds in real time to their behaviors. By working with a horse, students gain insight into feelings, behaviors, patterns, boundaries and more.
Horses are large and powerful, and their size alone provides a natural opportunity for teens to overcome fears and develop confidence through the management and care of such big, complex animals. The size and power of a horse are naturally intimidating to most people who lack previous experience with them. Accomplishing a task involving the horse, despite those fears, creates confidence and provides opportunities to experience and discuss valuable life metaphors. These metaphors in turn correlate with life’s most intimidating and challenging circumstances.
Experiential activities with offer a holistic approach that stimulates the spiritual self through natural, aesthetic experiences such as exposure to the sun, clean air, plants, trees and water. Similarly, equine therapy satisfies emotional needs, demonstrated by the horses’ responses to young women with nuzzling, nickering, sighing and munching and, in turn, the participants’ responses of touching, brushing, talking, hugging, patting and bonding. Physical needs are met by actively participating in large motor activities such as walking, brushing, and cleaning hooves. Finally, these activities satisfy intellectual needs by gaining horse knowledge through cognitive experiences which include learning about horse anatomy, nutrition, determination of body mass, color, breed, gender, height and observation of common behavior patterns.
Based on these abundant benefits, it is easy to see how equine therapy provides a valuable opportunity for teen girls to learn and grow in many meaningful ways. Our skillful staff is trained in equine therapy and how to use it with residents to boost positive change in ways no other approach can.