Trauma does not discriminate. Anyone and everyone is susceptible to experiencing a major injury or accident, natural disaster, devastating loss, witnessing or being victim of a crime, or experiencing neglect or abuse in our lifetimes. For children and youth who have experienced multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the impact of the trauma in their lives is compounded. As a result, these children face greater risk of health and social issues as they move into adulthood.
These are the children people often falsely label as difficult, bad, and worst of all, hopeless. Some even believe them to be defiant, disengaged, out of control, unruly, social deviants, or delinquents.
These are often our youth in foster care, our youth in juvenile detention systems, our drop-outs, our teen parents, or our homeless teens. As they grow older they become labeled as our repeat offenders, our transients, our gang members, and our nation’s addicts. They have children of their own and the through the intergenerational transmission of trauma, the cycle continues on and on.
These youth often struggle in school. They sometimes get into fights, act impulsively, ignore consequences, and find it difficult to cope with stress. They are often distrustful of others, struggle with connection, and usually do not understand their own emotions or needs.
This leads them to have a greater risk of abusing substances, dropping out of school, getting arrested, and making choices that can negatively impact their lives forever.
But below the surface, all of them are just trying to survive in a world that feels like it is working against them. Their brains and bodies are in a constant state of survival and they are doing the best they can to manage. They are hurting, they are scared, and they have learned that they cannot trust others to meet their needs.
So what can we do to help? How do we break this cycle?
It’s simple. We take action.
As with any treatment, early intervention improves the chances for a successful recovery, and the most powerful force in recovery is connection.
For our youth-at-risk, it is no different. Developing healthy relationships and forming connections with others re-shapes the brain and calms the entire nervous system. This allows opportunity for learning, healing, growth, and recovery from trauma.
But what do you for someone who doesn’t feel they can trust people? Does working with an animal really help?
Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) is when animals are incorporated in goal-directed treatment sessions. As mammals, like us, animals are hardwired for connection with others and share much of the same brain structures and nervous systems as our own. Animals offer a non-judgmental approach to connection and are often easier for children and teens to engage with than adults or peers.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a type of Animal Assisted Therapy that involves working with horses. This offers a hands-on experience for youth to build healthy relationships, improve social and communication skills, gain insight about the impact of their behaviors, and to learn how to regulate during times of stress and frustration.
Unlike traditional horsemanship, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy does not focus on teaching youth how to care for, handle, or ride horses. Instead, services focus on the client’s experiences during their interactions with the horses.
Services are led with a team approach by a licensed mental health clinician and equine specialist with one or more horses in each session. The team leads the client through specific interventions and activities with the horses to support the client in developing insight and finding their own solutions to their problems.
So why horses?
Horses are naturally attuned to threats in their environments and have evolved to sense danger and incongruencies in order to survive. In the wild, a horse needs to know if a predator in the field is hungry and on the prowl or if it has just eaten and the herd is safe to continue grazing. As a result, they have a keen sense to pick up on body language cues that symbolize intent and determine if the relationship feels safe or unsafe. They, like all mammals, react to the nervous systems of those around them through a process known as co-regulation.
Our treatment team have specialized training in understanding and communicating this process to clients as they engage in activities with the horses. As a result, the clients receive immediate feedback when something changes in a session. They are given the chance to make changes right then and there that can help the client practice communication skills and build self-awareness. With this insight, youth can build trust and begin to understand why they act the way they do and what they can do to change for the better.
Furthermore, for individuals who have experienced trauma and ACEs, it is often difficult to regulate emotion as the body remains in a chronic stress response of fight-flight-freeze. Unlike humans, horses are able to flee from danger one minute and resume a calm and peaceful state the next. They naturally manage their stress in an efficient and healthy ways.
When clients are working with the horses, our treatment team is focused on supporting healthy relationships between the client and horse. Through co-regulation, the client and horses are able to become synchronized in their emotional experience. Through rebuilding relationships that feel calm, safe, and connected, the brains and nervous systems become re-wired over time to no longer be in a state of stress and to allow them to return to a feeling of safety.
This means the youth can learn to react less and respond more. It can even help support their brain in rewiring for healthier functioning. This leads to improved problem-solving and critical thinking skills as they increase their executive functioning.
Even the most resistant youth tend to engage in this treatment as it offers novelty and does not put as much pressure directly on the client as traditional therapy. As a result, youth open up and often more progress happens in less time.
If you would like to learn more, you can reach our office at 559-472-3981.