An Arena for Success: Exploring Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy

Article excerpt

Therapeutic interventions have been a priority within the court systems to remediate the behavior of youths that have been adjudicated (Clark, 2001). Treatment interventions, involving traditional "talk" therapy in individual and family counseling are currently the primary remediation methods. Although these continue to be utilized, the recidivism rate of delinquents remains an area in need of further explorations for resolution (Sharkey, Furlong, Jimeson, & O'Brien, 2003). Youth who are diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) are one such group that requires effective therapeutic intervention.

The characteristics presented by an ODD adolescent are numerous and often include hostility, noncompliance, and aggressiveness; and they tend to be resistant to treatment (Hanna, Hanna, & Keys, 1999). This pattern of defiance creates obstacles for change. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) may provide an arena of effective strategies for adjudicated youth.

EAP is unique in that it does not require clients to ride or mount horses; instead, clients are presented with semi-structured tasks that involve interacting with horses and observing them making various responses. It is the meaning or interpretations that clients assign to the interactions with the horses that provide vehicles for making therapeutic gains. The therapist, in turn, takes the clients' interpretations of the client-horse interactions and from them crafts metaphors paralleling the clients' presenting problems. EAP represents an experiential, creative approach that is claimed to "... facilitate personal explorations of feelings, powers of intuition and energy, understandings of self, nature, relationships, and communication" (Rothe, Vega, Torres, Soler, & Pazos, 2005, p. 375).

Applications of this relatively new approach with at risk youth provide options for treatment interventions. For example, a 14-year old adjudicated boy with ODD features and at risk for committing more offenses was referred to the first author of this article for EAP. A brief case study illustrates the potential success of EAP.

ODD and EAP Case Implementation

The client, whom we will call Howard, entered the arena with no prior exposure to horses. He is of average intelligence and has been diagnosed as having learning disabilities. He presented with characteristics of depression and had difficulty controlling his anger. The client was not medicated. He had no known allergies or other medical problems at the time of treatment. He smoked cigarettes and was a substance abuser, with marijuana as his drug of choice. He attended an alternative school that met his needs both academically and emotionally.

He was adjudicated for a violent offense approximately one year prior to being referred for EAP. He had been involved in "talk" therapy for substance abuse and anger management, but with little positive effect. He continued to violate probation due to failing drug screenings and acting-out aggressively. Howard entered therapy without any horse knowledge (which is to be expected) and presented with a great deal of hostility as well as hopelessness.

On his first exposure to EAP, Howard entered the arena and found himself alone among four horses. Much to Howard's surprise, the horses spontaneously circled around him. Without prompting, he began to touch one he dubbed the "Leader" because "he doesn't take no s--- from anyone." When one of the treatment team members asked, "What do you want to share with us today?" Howard announced that he had a drug screening the previous day and boasted that his "drop was clean." The horses instantly bolted away from him. The client immediately stated, "Wow, they are better than a screening. They knew I failed the test!"

The power of the client's perceptions regarding the incident changed his behavior dramatically. Even though the horses, of course, did not know the results of the "drop," Howard's interpretation of their bolting behavior as having caught him in a lie represented a turning point in his therapy: he had always been capable of manipulating his previous counselors, but now his own metaphoric interpretation of the horses' behavioral reaction was able to display his tendencies to deceive others and himself. …