Equine therapy is an effective therapeutic approach that has shown significant benefits with teen boys.
Boys at Muir Wood visit the Medicine Horse Ranch, a 1000-acre idyllic working ranch in Tomales Bay, every Tuesday for five hours for equine-assisted therapy. Therapy is facilitated by Alyssa Aubrey, CEGE, a nationally renowned equine guided therapist.
As a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and an equine professional, Muir Wood teens work with horses to realize individual treatment goals. Equine therapy addresses a variety of mental health and human development needs including behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs. This powerful experiential process helps residents develop non-verbal communication skills, assertiveness, confidence, creative thinking, leadership and problem-solving skills, as well as teamwork and relationships.
What is the benefit?
Horses, though fiercely independent, are animals of prey and live in herds. As such, they are acutely attuned to their emotional environment particularly with regard to safety, order, leadership and teamwork. Humans and horses have been linked for more than 6,000 years. We naturally sense their vulnerability and can’t deny their power. Teen boys, in the course of ordinary development, face a daunting set of psychosocial and physical changes that activate their sense of safety, order, leadership and membership (or belonging). Interactions with horses connect boys approaching manhood through their innate appreciation for the animals’ strength, dignity, awareness and freedom.
Equine-Therapy and the Group Dynamic
Alyssa Aubrey, CEGE — Equine Therapist
Like horses, troubled boys have a hyper-alert radar for danger, excitement, threat, power, authority, humiliation and fear. When boys come to Muir Wood, they immediately feel the drumbeat of the group, and their alert signals spike. While some are natural joiners, others have been apparent leaders, and many have lurked in the shadows of group membership, all will benefit from assistance with the developmentally necessary and challenging process of joining the herd. As wounded children, many of the boys, for reasons we’ll try together to understand, have been undernourished by the caregiving offered to them. Like horses, they have had to put considerable energy into protecting themselves and scanning their environment for real and imagined threats. In contact with real, live horses, boys learn to move beyond destructive fear-management strategies (such as numbing themselves, running away or striking out) and toward healthy interdependence.
As written by equine educator Linda Kohanov in her forthcoming book, The Power of the Herd: “To retrace the steps of sorrow, injustice, courage, and compassion, elevated by a being that has been used both for conquest and freedom is to know the dark and light of power.” In this way, Muir Wood boys take up the project of defining their own lives, allow new mentors to emerge, and experience being part of a fully conscious, alive and empowered group.
Equine-Guided Learning at Muir Wood
We spend time with horses each week at a local ranch specializing in equine-guided learning. Boys are introduced to the features of charisma, bravery, poise, focus, endurance and conviction embodied in every horse with whom they interact. The horses are not ridden; rather, their majesty, emotional honesty and perceptivity, exquisite leader/follower choreography, and the nonjudgmental yet keenly aware posture they possess, lead our boys toward the essential aspects of social and emotional intelligence.
Among the goals of equine-guided learning are:
- Increase verbal and non-verbal communication skills
- Deepen ability to contribute to interdependent community of males
- Develop integrity and trust
- Manage anger and frustration
- Develop accountability
- Practice problem-solving methods, particularly as part of a group
- Increase awareness of emotional experience to address discomfort
- Slow down and find meaning in stillness and value for silence