Written by: Myles Shane

One parent’s perspective on the benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy for children.

Thumbnail for The Benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy for Children

“She can’t sit still on the mat!” Our daughter’s frustrated grade one teacher continued her rant, “She’s very sweet and a lovely girl, but she’s always moving. Have you practiced stillness with her at home? I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO DO!” and those were the nicest comments about my kids during parent teacher interviews.

My son’s grade two teacher, who is one of the nicest, most kind and loving souls I’ve ever met has taught him for two years. She has a background in behavioral psychology and truly believes he is capable of greatness. “He’s better than last year but has very little focus, can be disruptive during class, doesn’t have much self regulation, is a bit of a bully, but he’s a real leader. Over all I see a huge improvement.”

Last year my son was diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. In other words he can be impulsive, inattentive, moody, argumentative, hyperactive, defiant, irritable, and great fun only if the moon and stars are aligned. As for our daughter, she hasn’t been diagnosed yet but she certainly exhibits all the behaviour of classic ADHD.

We gave our son a type of ADHD medication but the side effects were undesirable. We are now trying a supplement program. We’re even enrolled in a weekly behavioral modification program. Combined, all of these efforts have worked somewhat, but the reality is most of the time I feel like my wife and I are lunatics and our kids are running the asylum. Where’s Nurse Ratchet (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) when you need her?

Sam and Erin meet one of Sierra Acres Equine Assisted Healing Centre's therapy horses, Molly.

Ben and Erin meet one of Sierra Acres Equine Assisted Healing Centre’s therapy horses, Molly. Photo by Naomi Hiltz

My son’s grade two teacher suggested we try Equine Therapy. She noted it had helped a former student of hers. She recommended I call Sierra Acres Equine Assisted Healing Centre and ask for Anne Porteous. Anne has been a Registered Nurse for over 40 years and for the last 17 has been a professor of nursing. In 2013 she received a Diploma in Equine Science from the University of Guelph and is currently the coordinator of EAGALA – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Anne has been practicing Equine Therapy for eight years and has helped over 100 clients.

I asked Anne to tell me about Equine Therapy. “Equine Therapy is a form of experiential therapy that involves interactions between clients and horses. Equine Therapy involves activities such as grooming, feeding, haltering and leading a horse that are supervised by a mental health professional, often with the support of a horse professional. The therapy allows a child to become calm, more focused, feeling like they can accomplish something, feel a sense of fulfillment and it enhances a child’s confidence in his/her ability to tackle new projects which leads to improved self-esteem.”

On the coldest day of 2017, -37°C with a wind chill, our family drove an hour and half from Thornhill to Rockwood. While my wife and I tried to keep it calm and practice patience like the Jedi Knights our children acted like gremlins in the backseat. As the radio belted out Jingle Bells, All I Want For Christmas, Deck The Halls and other holiday classics, Ben and Erin spat at each other, stuck their heads out the window, kicked and pinched each other, and incessantly argued. We had to pull the car over several times as we waited for their play fighting and manic energy to stop.

Eventually we arrived at our destination, Sierra Acres Equine Assisted Healing Centre. While Anne was showing us her horses, she explained how Equine Therapy has helped ADHD children she’s worked with in the past. “It can significantly improve symptoms of aggression, depression, and anxiety. The children may adjust better to new routines and teachers, and more easily shift from one task to another. Friendships are less stressful. Some children are rebellious, grades are not good and there are social problems. Through working with horses by activities such as grooming, building an obstacle course or having a course built for them, children start to learn about kindness, compassion and respect for others and those in authority.”

Leading Molly gave Ben a chance to learn about compromise.

Leading Molly gave Ben a chance to learn about compromise. Photo by Naomi Hiltz

First up was Ben. Anne and I had spoken previously about his diagnosis. She asked us what specific behaviour we’d like to work on. My wife and I agreed we wanted him to deal with his frustration better. Ben was introduced to a large white Percheron horse named Molly who weighed approximately 2,600 pounds. Ben wasn’t sure how to greet Molly so Anne coached him. “I asked Ben how he would greet a new friend and he answered that he would walk up to the person and say hi. I demonstrated how he should walk up to a horse in order to gain the horse’s respect, and how to transfer what he knows from working with horses to being with friends. When he greeted Molly with respect she was receptive. She remained standing and lowered her head to smell his hand. Had he not been respectful she would have stepped away.”

The next activity was fascinating to watch. She taught Ben how to lead the horse around the arena. This 2,000+ pound horse was following my 60-pound little boy. Somehow Ben had the confidence to lead an animal 20 times his size. However, after a couple laps there was a conflict. The horse stopped following Ben and stood still. Molly was done. Ben didn’t know what to do. His normal reactions to someone not meeting his expectations are screaming, having tantrums, intense arguments and bullying, but even Ben understands you can’t bully a horse. In the freezing cold my son stood there motionless and perplexed. Again Anne coached him through the situation, “Ben was pulling on the rope and getting the same results – Molly stood still. When I asked him what was occurring he responded, “She won’t move or walk.” I simply said, “I wonder what would happen if you tried something different, go in a different direction?” He decided to move her to the right, walk around the back of the arena and then walk with her to where he had originally headed.” This drill taught Ben the art of compromising.

Erin chose to work with Charlie and learned that to gain his focus, she needed to work on her own.

Erin chose to work with Charlie and learned that to gain his focus, she needed to work on her own. Photo by Naomi Hiltz

Our daughter chose Charlie, a stunning Haflinger horse. Anne asked Erin to introduce herself to Charlie but Erin couldn’t settle down and the horse seemed to mirror her behaviour. Anne then asked Erin to be still. Both Erin and the horse stopped moving. Erin patted her new friend. Afterwards Erin led Charlie around the arena and they played some soccer with Molly. Anne analyzed their interaction, “Leading a big animal is very powerful. It helps to build confidence, improve self-esteem, “I can do it!”

After watching Ben and Erin’s involvement with the horses I asked Anne how more sessions might help them. She explained, “A horse reflects back the mood of the person. At first your daughter was quite inaccessible and Charlie was also moving around a lot. When your daughter settled and became more focused she was able to lead Charlie very effectively. With more sessions she would be able to learn more about connections between behaviours, thoughts, and choices. With further sessions we’d focus on age appropriate activities such as braiding horses, and brushing them. This type of therapy is empowering for children. It’s calming and non-invasive.”

Anne Porteous of Sierra Acres Equine Assisted Healing Centre, with therapy horse Charlie.

Anne Porteous of Sierra Acres Equine Assisted Healing Centre, with therapy horse Charlie. Photo by Naomi Hiltz

Anne felt that it would be beneficial for Ben to continue with the program. “He could learn to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively promoting the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Research clearly indicates that animal-assisted therapy reduces agitation and aggressiveness and increases cooperativeness and behavioral control.”

For those interested in pursuing Equine Therapy, Anne usually provides 90-minute sessions for adults, however sessions for children are usually shorter. She assured me most health care plans cover the costs and clients don’t need to be referred by a physician. Anne offers services to fit all budgets, and is known for crafting one-of-a-kind programs to meet the unique needs of her clients.

I can safely say after watching Anne work with Ben and Erin during the coldest day of the winter, there is no doubt in my mind we’ll be signing them up for more classes. I can’t wait for Erin’s grade one teacher to see her sit on the mat. The only problem is she might be covered in hay.