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Opinion & Essays - Oct, 1999 Issue #62

Considerations for Programs Utilizing Horses and Their Referral Sources

By Greg Kersten,
Founder and President,
Equine Services and EAGALA
P.O. Box 571
Sandy, Utah 84091

The number of schools and program that implement animals, particularly horses, is growing rapidly. Animals are useful both in conveying a variety of lessons, as well as for crossing barriers with hard-to-reach youth. While in the process of founding Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and promoting the field over the past ten years, I have visited, trained, and worked with countless programs and practices that choose to use horses with at-risk youth. 

As a by-product of learning basic equine care and upkeep, adolescent clients also gain the benefit of learning respect and responsibility. Appropriate communication, confidence, and self-esteem are learned by way of trial and error and accomplishment with their equine counterparts, as the sessions with the animals progress and intensify. 

Horses have proven to be versatile and dynamic assistants in therapy. Specific needs and issues of clients can elicit a range of behavior from a horse. With the intervention of a therapist, treatment plan goals are met efficiently for diverse clients and their respective situations. According to many therapists, equine-assisted therapy effectively minimizes a client’s time in treatment due to its ability to bring issues to the surface in a timely fashion and a relatively non-threatening environment. 

In an effort to discern effective, therapeutic, equine programs from “dude ranches” and marketing ploys, I offer the following list of suggestions and questions to ask of a potential program and its participants. As you “shop” for a youth residential treatment program it is often possible to interview or meet current clients, staff, administrators, and even parents. 

Questions to avoid are those that require little thought, little sincerity, and a yes-no answer. Small talk may endear you to a student or staff member, but cannot offer you any indication of whether a program is successful. Following are some potential questions that have been answers to these questions to the answers the program staff give. Are these staff in a position to help your client or child? 

Instead of asking, “Who is your favorite horse?” ask instead, “Which horse is most like you? Why?” Rather than questioning, “What do you like best about horses?” pose the question: “What has this horse helped you learn?” As an alternative to the inquiry, “Do you want your own horse someday?” ask, ‘Tell about your most memorable learning moment with a horse; how does that relate to your life?” 

Specific questions about the horse program should be directed to the equine and therapy staff, and should include the following: s 

1.)  How much recreational time is spent with the horses? 

2.)  How often (and for how long) are there individual sessions with a therapist, a horse person, and horses? Equine therapy should be a priority, and should precede recreation in importance and time.  

3.)  What safety procedures are used by staff and taught to students?  

4.)  Will the staff and students demonstrate safety procedures for you? Do you feel secure with their level of expertise in this area?  What is the educational and experiential background of the staff? Do you feel secure with their level of expertise in this area?  

5.)  What is the educational and experiential background of the staff? Do all staff undergo criminal background checks?  

6.)  What is the exact equine curriculum? Is it in writing?s 

7.)  How much time does a student spend on the ground with a horse before riding? In general, the longer a program keeps youth learning from the ground, the more successful they are at teaching valuable therapy lessons and safety. I recommend a minimum of three weeks of regular sessions. 

Ask YOURSELF: Is the facility well-maintained? Pay particular attention to buildings, fencing, pasture, and tack room. Are the horses healthy and well-groomed? Keep in mind it is the staff who cares for the facility who also will be responsible for your client or child. 

Once you are properly informed about an equine program you can make an educated decision about youth placement. Visiting an equine program is always preferable to phoning an admissions counselor or looking at a brochure. Horses attract people to programs all over the country; it is up to you to ascertain that equine therapy is an integral part of the program you choose. For more information on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and its affiliated, certified programs in the United States, contact Equine Services of EAGALA at 1-877-858-4600.

Copyright © 1999, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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