Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

NETWORKER NEWS; Ride for Pride Helps Juvemile Offenders Stay on the Right Trail: Unless, of Course, That Horse Is a Therapist

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

NETWORKER NEWS; Ride for Pride Helps Juvemile Offenders Stay on the Right Trail: Unless, of Course, That Horse Is a Therapist

Article excerpt

In the high desert country of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where family therapy hasn't really taken root yet, some of the most innovative clinical work takes place at the Ride to Pride horse stables. Ride to Pride is one of the most successful programs for equine therapy for serious juvenile offenders and their families, and its staff members give most of the credit to the horses. "The horses are our cotherapists," says Doug Mann, former clinical director and current consultant for Ride to Pride.

While studies have shown that the companionship of dogs, cats, fish and birds alleviates depression, reduces stress, blood pressure and cholesterol, smooths adjustments to major life changes and promotes healing, more than 600 equine therapists around the country insist that as agents of therapeutic change, horses are a breed apart. Equine therapists claim that the 4,500 specially trained therapeutic horses establish a conscious, mutual relationship with their clients through their physical power, intelligence and temperament, which builds trust, empathy, responsibility and humility.

To understand how horses do it, let's start with horsepower. People who have lived by their power--whether it comes from a weapon, physical force or attitude--learn their limits when they confront a horse. For 12 years, prisoners at the California State Penitentiary at Susanville have been working with wild horses. "These guys have been used to taking something when they want it, and damn the consequences," says a California Department of Corrections official. "They're used to hurting and pushing people around. But you can't bully a 1,200-pound horse and tell it what to do. They realize pretty quickly they've got to change their approach. They've learned to ask the horses for permission." Horses don't teach just by overpowering, however. When depressed, shy or physically disabled children and adolescents sit high on a horse and communicate with it, the sense of mastery and exhilaration remains long after the riding session. "Something awesome happens when these big, beautiful, majestic animals accept you," says Rebecca Bombet, an equine therapist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Like human therapists, therapeutic horses must have an even temperament and a consistent, clear but nonthreatening way of giving feedback. Many equine therapists insist that horses also have a finely tuned sense of people that borders on empathy. Trained horses are accepting (though not passive), and they don't spook at loud noises or sudden displays of emotion. This unflappability allows clients plenty of room to act out and test their own projections. Laytonsville, Maryland, equine therapist Terry Lewis recalls a child who dismounted after a gentle ride and suddenly slugged the horse in the head. "The horse just stood there," Lewis said, "and we had a long discussion about pain, abuse and forgiveness."

In the last few decades, Las Vegas has suffered severe economic and cultural distress. The growth of corporate ranching has caused an entire generation to lose its land and horses. The juvenile justice system has been overwhelmed with adolescents convicted of drug abuse, violence and drive-by shootings. These are the clients who come to Ride to Pride.

It takes several sessions of grooming and getting to know their horses before riding instructor Greg Esquibel lets any of the kids mount up. …

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