Horses Provide Unique Therapy for Troubled Youth

by scrosby on June 15, 2008

In what’s often called the ‘Horse Capital of the World’, thoroughbred racing is king. Kentucky’s equine legacy is… and will always be… in racing. But on one farm in Oldham County, the horses are working to make the future a little brighter for Louisville’s troubled youth. WFPL’s Stephanie Sanders reports.

They’re kids who’ve likely spent their youth being shuttled around various foster homes and in unending group therapy sessions…and now they’re finding roots – and maybe a little bit of themselves – in the unexpected friendship of a horse.

It takes about 30 minutes to get to Esperanza Farm from downtown Louisville… and just enough twisty-turns to consider yourself far removed from whatever you left behind there. Esperanza is the home of Forward Motion, an equine therapy company run by Margaret Larocca. Her therapists are a motley crew of mustangs, a draft horse, a miniature and a donkey named La Nella.

“Who is this?” “This is Bella!  She’s standing in the shade…trying to stay cool, right Bella?”  “I don’t blame you, girl…”

Larocca equates equine-assisted psychotherapy to the more well-known talk therapy. You know… the one with the shrink and ‘the couch’. But in this case, the shrink is a horse.

“Horses do one very magical thing in that they force you to be in the moment. I mean, when you’re in here with three young mustangs, that are running around and playing and interacting with each other, they bring you in the moment. And a lot of times our clients are either living in the past or anticipating the future, so being in this setting brings them into a mindfulness state. So it’s very therapeutic.”

There’s actually very little riding that goes on during these sessions. Much of the work is done in observing the horses and how they interact with each other. She asks each person to choose which horse is most like them and why.And that’s where she can learn a lot about the client. Instead of a teenager telling her they’re insecure – which would be very difficult to get them to verbalize – they’re telling her the gray horse is most like them because it’s head is down and it never perks up its ears. The scene takes the pressure off the child and puts it on the horse.The social services agency Boys Haven recently started sending their abused and sometimes homeless boys to Esperanza for therapy sessions…and they aren’t the only ones. The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association – which certifies the therapists – now has more than sixty training sessions and thousands of new equine therapists are joining the ranks each year. Executive Director Vern Rickert says the program has exceeded his expectations.

“Four of the kids wanted to volunteer out there! Well kids… kids (chuckle)…they hardly ever want to volunteer to do any kind of work! So that’s just an example of how it’s taken root with some of these kids.”

One of Larocca’s most memorable clients from Boys Haven is a young man who identified most with Big Jim… a draft horse who stands six feet tall and is clearly the largest of the pack.

“He would run around this field, chasing that horse, calling it names, screaming at it…running… and it was hard to watch! The fourth session, he got out of the van and he said ‘where is Jim’s halter? Because I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve decided I’m going to change my approach.’

He went out into the field, and within ten minutes, he had gotten Jim. He came up to me and said ‘I just want to let you know that I’m going to be going to a foster home and I’ve thought about this and I’ve realized that I’m Big Jim and that I don’t like to be caught and that my approach in coming up to people is always that of control and pressure and he didn’t want that so today I approached him as a friend and I dropped that’ and he said ‘I’m always going to remember what Jim taught me’.”

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