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Horse therapy helps youth deal with life issues

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP)--The teens frantically wave their arms, snap their fingers and make clicking sounds with their tongues in an attempt to get the horse to follow them and step over a piece of plastic pipe suspended across two overturned plastic buckets.

Unexpectedly, the pipe rolls from its perch onto the ground and the horse unintentionally steps over it.

Psychotherapist and registered nurse Pat Dubois reminds the kids that the verbal instructions were quite simply to get the horse to step over the pipe without touching the animal with their hands or pretending they were holding food.

The teens from A New Day Youth & Family Services, a short-term shelter for at-risk children, were engaged in exercises as part of Raising Hands for Horses, a program that Dubois operates out of her Corrales home.

The "equine-assisted psychotherapy" program focuses on emotional issues, while a related "equine-assisted learning" program focuses on life skills and issues related to academics and behavior.

The interactions between people and horses are useful in helping individuals and families deal with such issues as grief and loss, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, addictions, depression, anxiety, learning disorders and more.

The kids are brutally honest about their performance during a post-exercise discussion. One chides himself for "not listening carefully" to the instructions at the beginning. Another talks of being extra patient with the large animal for fear of getting hurt. One acknowledges frustration at being unable to convey what she wanted the horse to do, while another chose to befriend the horse and get it to trust him.

Some kids clearly emerge as the leaders during the exercises, providing a boost to their confidence and self-esteem.

Behaviors that got these young people into trouble in the first place are often manifested to some degree during the sessions.

"What happens in the real world happens in the horse arena," Dubois says. "The anger, self-image or trust issues that kids have in their personal lives come out during the exercises with the horses, but here the kids learn new ways to address them."

Horses are intuitive animals and can sense what people are feeling, and then mirror those emotions, Dubois explains. "So if you're anxious then the horse is anxious, and that's why they don't let you get away with anything. They keep you honest."

Horses are also herd animals, and the interactions the animals have with other members of the herd are similar to the dynamics people have in families and in their social relationships, Dubois says.

"You can't just walk up to a horse and demand that it does what you want. You need to have a relationship with the animal that involves trust and respect. And that's where fear comes into it. A kid just doesn't disrespect a horse like he does another kid. This is a 1,000-pound animal, and you have to respect it. Youths who have difficulty with respect, such as kids in the juvenile justice system, learn respect."

Kids can also learn about their own strengths by observing the behaviors that the horse mirrors back to them, Dubois says. "In the end, the goal is to foster strength and resiliency in a nonthreatening way, and to teach the kids something about themselves."

For Adela Rodriguez, equine therapy has been a blessing for her and her 8-year-old son, who had anger issues and was prone to fits of rage.

"We tried so many other things and then we heard about the horse therapy from a counselor at A New Day (Youth & Family Services), where he'd been going for counseling."

Her son began attending the program once a week in June, and today, "he's a completely different child," Rodriguez says. "My son is more calm, doesn't get angry and is more caring toward people and pets. Before, there were times he'd go into rages and we'd have to restrain him. That doesn't happen anymore. He finds the words to say what bothers him and he feels more sure of himself."

Working with horses isn't limited to at-risk youths, Dubois says. In her practice she also uses the animals for family and adult counseling, and she does programs for corporations that want to hone their teamwork and leadership-building skills.

The idea of equine-assisted therapy and learning germinated in Utah in the 1990s, when social workers at a residential treatment center took at-risk youths on a field trip to a local ranch. The rancher subsequently worked with a social worker to outline a program to match mental health experts with equine experts and to establish standards for providing equine-assisted psychotherapy.

In 1999, that program was formalized as the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA, says Mickey DiGiacomo, the organization's program director. Today, there are EAGALA-certified members in 30 countries. Dubois is certified and follows the EAGALA model.

"Having done therapy now for 14 years I can tell you that kids don't always love therapy, but they really love this," Dubois says. "It's dynamic, it's short-term and it's a way kids can learn about themselves. The other thing is that horses are natural to New Mexico. It's part of the West, part of our heritage."

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