At the Morning Star Boys’ Ranch – a residential facility south of Spokane for boys with behavioral or social problems – horses play a therapeutic role.
Aside from horseback riding and natural horsemanship, Morning Star is offering equine-assisted psychotherapy, or EAP, for its residents, many of whom are affected by neglect and abuse.
EAP does not involve actual riding. It simply involves interacting on the ground with the horse, an equine specialist and a therapist or a social worker.
“The boy gets a simple task: Go get a horse in the barn and lead it to the round pen to the best of your ability,” said Megan Ferney, the supervisor of the ranch’s equine program. “They can’t do it wrong. Then sometimes we have balls with feelings written on them sitting around the pen and they go get the balls that say how they feel and put them in the hula hoop ring in the middle.”
Meanwhile, the therapist watches the boy’s interactions with the horse. Is the horse left behind? Does the boy bring the horse along? Do the two get along?
“The horses are very tuned in – they reflect the boys’ own stuff,” said Ferney. “For instance, if one boy has trouble following direction and listening, then the horse he’s leading has trouble following direction, too – it tries to get away and eat grass.”
After the horse session is over, the boy’s interaction with the horse becomes the starting point for a conversation with the therapist about how the boy is feeling.
“The outcome of that conversation depends on how much the boys are willing to look at themselves at the moment, but conversation grows over time,” Ferney said.
The program at Morning Star follows the guidelines of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. And while equine-assisted psychotherapy is considered experimental, it can have a powerful effect in areas such as communication, problem solving and relationships.
“Horses don’t pretend they feel one way and act another way. They don’t hide their feelings,” Ferney said. “The boys respond to that.”
Especially responsive are boys with reactive attachment disorder, which means they have a difficult time forming strong attachments to people because early bonds to primary caregivers were destroyed.
“Boys with reactive attachment disorder don’t connect with people,” Ferney said. “When we start working with the horses and grooming them, the boys aren’t comfortable with all that touching. Sometimes the horse is the first living being they connect to.”
Anger management is another area where the horses seem to help.
“Sometimes all it takes is to get the boy over to the barn and he de-escalates in five to 10 minutes,” Ferney said. “They talk to the horses. Sometimes the boys tell them they love them when they leave them on the field. They don’t tell anybody else they love them.”