Children With Severe Behavior Problems and Horses Who Help Them
horses can be good therapists
Children will act out for all kinds of reasons. What I am addressing here, are those children who have gone through the traditional kinds of fixes, like therapy, home schooling, and anger management. There is one type of behavior therapy that is a non traditional help that I have been involved in, that seems to really work. This involves the child and a routine once or twice a week appointment with a very different kind of counselor.
Let me tell you a story about a little boy, who had been to every school in our county, and had been kicked out, leaving only a home school situation for him. He was ten years old, and lived with his mom and sister. The boys sister was two years older than he was, and seemed to be a rather spoiled child. She also seemed to be the "boss" of the house, indicating to mom when she thought they should go to bed, what they should eat, and so on.
It was a very dysfunctional home, and Mom seemed to be a caring person, but had a real hard time saying no to her kids, and meaning it. The kids seemed to be winning the war on who had the final say in the home, and there was no Dad present, nor was there a Dad who even made an appearance.
Mom wanted to be the parent, but these two kids had worn her out. She would lay down the law, and after pushing and pushing her boundaries she would finally give in and would turn her head to let the kids do whatever it was that they were pushing to get. When they met me, it was because I had been advertising horse back riding lessons for kids in our neighborhood, and the family lived in our area, and had two horses that were just sort of being yard decorations. The girl had an interest in the horses, and was very good about feeding them and caring for them as much as she knew to, but when Mom came to me with this interest in learning for her kids, she could only afford to put one child in the lessons, therefore the girl who was doing well in school, and was better behaved got the paid for lessons. The younger brother came along to watch, and as I instructed the girl, saw in him an interest, but also saw in him a deep anger.
Mom came to me to inquire about a possible price discount for the second child, and we began talking about his behavioral problems. It seemed that no school in the area would take the child back, for he had displayed some very angry and physical lashing out against his fellow students at first, fighting on the playground and after school at first, and then a flash temper that was shown in class that finally ended with an attack on his fifth grade teacher, who he had hit with his fist, once in the face and once in her chest area. He had been at that point, expelled.
When his sister was taking her lesson, I watched him as he began kicking an old tub in my driveway, and as the hour continued he gave this old plastic tub a thorough lashing. His Mom asked him and then told him to stop, which only seemed to escalate the action. I saw in him a very sad and jealous kid who definitely was competing with his sister for the good or bad attention of this mother. I told her that I would give the child free lessons, if he was willing to help me out in the stable and arena area cleaning up. She talked to him and he readily agreed. Mom warned me about his ":problems" and told me to watch out for his anger and to not expect him to actually "do" what I expected of him for the lesson.
I thought to myself, "Sure lady, you watch and see if he doesn't do what I ask", but said only "OK, I will." She wanted to stay and watch but I asked her not to, that she could come and pick him up later. She looked at me dubiously, as though I was crazy for taking on this kid alone, and didn't know what I was getting myself into, and also noted the sister and her obviously discussing this as they walked off towards their car, the girl smirking and pointing my direction.
The youngster approached me and asked what we were gonna do. I decided to put him on a paint horse I had that was about 14 years old, and was a difficult animal to get to do anything but walk slowly. I told the child that this horse had some problems just like he did, but that I thought they would be a perfect match. We walked back and got him on his halter, and I let the boy lead him out, showing him how to lead the horse and not get stepped on. I could see some ideas hatching behind the boys eyes, even at this point. I showed him how to brush his horse, and stepped out of the picture so the two of them could get to know one another. As soon as the boy thought I was out of sight, he hauled off and hit the horse in his side. Now a ten year old boy can hit but not hard enough to do any damage to a horse, and the paints response to this was a very hard swish and flick of his tail, right in this boys face. It was enough to let him know that he could also hurt him if he wanted. I watched as this boy took out a little bit of limited frustration toward this horse, and also watched the horse come back with his own brand of "you better watch it kid, I am bigger than you "response". The horse hit him with his tail, reached back and bit at him, but only got his clothing, knocking him down once, and rubbed his itchy eye on him till the boy almost couldn't keep his balance. I then stepped back in before it went any further. I told him that this horse, his name was Dale, had been abused (a lie), and needed a friend. I didn't say anything about him hitting the horse or what I had seen.
After getting Dale saddled up, the boy got up on him, and we left on what was to be a learning experience for all of us. The boy wanted me to be intimidated by him, and the horse too I think, but old Dale had not even noticed much. It had been good for the boy to be able to be around someone who could take whatever he dished out, and we went off for a very long ride. About three fourths of the way through the ride, the boy got off Dale, and I asked him if he was sore, and he said "No, I just felt sorry for Dale, I think he is tired" This was the first time the boy had shown any consideration for an other's feelings at all. I honestly thought he just didn't want me to know he had had enough, and his butt was sore. After walking for about ten minutes he got back up and we finally arrived back.
He was so tired and sore after this ride that his aggression was just plain gone. He very tiredly went about doing what I asked of him, and his Mom came and got him. I felt that the experience had been a positive one, and told Mom to bring him at least once or twice a week.
The very next morning when I got up and went out to feed the horses, I was surprised to find my newest student out there with a rake, cleaning up Dales stall. The horse was nudging him around and they had become best of friends. The thing was, the boy did not have any friends. He needed to feel liked and wanted. This old horse made him feel that way.
His mother called me in a panic a few minutes later, asking me did I know where her kid was, she woke up and he was missing. I told her not to worry, he wasn't missing he was at my house cleaning up horse crap, voluntarily. She couldn't believe her ears.
As soon as her little brother was involved, the sister no longer wanted the lessons. This was OK by me, for the boy needed the attention more than she did anyway.
The long and the short of this lesson was this, as soon as this child had gotten involved with this old horse of mine, he began to show improvement at home, and eventually went back to school. He began to show a side of him that was hidden before, and that was that he could in fact feel for another living creature, human or not. He began showing his mother that he was able to do his chores, and because of Dale, and his love of him, was able to be taught, for he did not want to lose his weekly lessons with him. This gave his mom the leverage she needed to get him to do what he was asked.
Many therapists have used horses and other animals in therapy with kids. The thing about horses is that kids with temper issues cannot really do anything that will hurt an animal of that size. Yet, they are able to show these kids the love they need. This therapy worked for this child, almost completely causing him to recover from his debilitating behavior. Who knows what would have happened to this kid if he had not had this relationship with a horse. I believe he very easily could have ended up in Juvenal hall or some other kid detention center, and eventually would have ended up in jail. It looked like that to me. Thank God for Dale and horses like him.