“The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” — Winston Churchill
What are Animal-Assisted Therapy and Animal-Assisted Activities?
- Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT) is a goal directed intervention in which an animal that meets specific criteria is an integral part of the treatment process.
- AAT is directed and/or delivered by a health/human service professional with specialized expertise, and within the scope of practice of his/her profession.
- AAT is designed to promote improvement in human physical, social, emotional, and/or cognitive functioning.
- AAT is provided by a variety of settings, and may be group or individual in nature. This process is documented and evaluated.
- AAA provides opportunities for motivational, educational, recreational, and/or therapeutic benefits to enhance quality of life.
- AAA’s are delivered in a variety of environments by a specially trained professional, paraprofessional, and/or volunteer in association with animals that meet specific criteria.
At Promise Village the Animal-Assisted Therapy model is used in the treatment planning and is an integral component to the therapeutic process. The research that we have done has uncovered the many benefits of using animals in helping those with emotional need challenges. The animals, in a very real sense, take on the role as therapist with the residents they work with. They enable them to heal emotionally, develop self-confidence, become more empathetic, form attachments, and also develop a safe bond.
Animals can become safe transitional objects for the residents to attach and form a healthy bond with, while learning to care for and take responsibility for something. The animal can also help them develop empathy and compassion they develop this relationship. The animal will listen to all of their cares, concerns and worries without exploding or criticism. The uncritical, listening ear that the animal provides helps them learn to trust something, even if initially it is not a person. Ultimately, the goal is for the empathic skills and newly developed ability to trust, be transferred to their relationships with other human beings.
Arguably, the most innovative component of the Promise Village: Home for Children residential intervention/prevention and treatment program is Animal-Assisted Therapy (AAT), especially the emphasis on Equine Therapy.
Why Does Animal-Assisted Therapy Work?
…Troubled children and teens respond to animals in ways that they often can’t or won’t with people.
In many cases, they experience companionship, intimacy, and a sense of inclusion and self-worth. Seen through a child’s eyes, an animal/friend is non-judgmental. They perceive other benefits such as, unquestioned loyalty, physical contact and returned affection. It is not uncommon for at-risk children and teens to feel depressed, withdrawn and even unwanted. In order for the healing process to begin, they need to feel connected and to experience a personal bond with another living thing. For some, connecting with an adult or peer may be perceived as threatening. In such cases, an animal-friend becomes a logical alternative.
Residents learn important lessons by interacting/relating to animals. These lessons become stepping-stones for establishing connections with people. The experience of nurturing an animal and receiving affection in return, help establish feelings of self-worth, and as a result, they may be encouraged to risk human connections. Learning to care for animals seems to develop a sense of responsibility and caring. Many struggling kids and troubled teens that come to Promise Village are angry and hurt due to very difficult situations or choices they have made. Each of them experience direct contact and interaction with the animals. The contacts range from playing with a dog, grooming and riding a horse, handling the exotic birds, holding and petting the cats, or take responsibility for feeding and cleaning the animals during chore time. These kids are more apt to risk a friendship with an animal because the animal will not ask questions, will not judge them, and will not tell their secrets to anyone. In our therapeutic riding program, the Farm Director arranges for each of them to have their own horse to groom, ride, and develop a bond with. The relationship with the horse facilitates relationships to develop with the child’s therapist, other staff, their peers and eventually their families.
The animals simply act as a bridge crossing the gap from the child to healthy, loving, and nurturing human relationships.
Two examples of animals used in AAT at Promise Village and the benefits they bring to the residents:
Research has been done that shows dogs help reduce feelings of loneliness, provide comfort, reduce stress, uplift those who are discouraged, and help develop self-esteem as one is given responsibility to care for and train the animal. At Promise Village, we have wonderful dogs named Missy and Puff. They live in the house with the residents and bring much joy and laughter to the milieu.
When horses are used in the therapeutic process it is sometimes referred to as “Equine Therapy,” or more commonly as “therapeutic riding”. Our horses at Promise Village help the residents with impulse control, and to develop concentration skills in those who have been diagnosed with ADD. The horses are a tool that helps them learn to focus and remember crucial steps in caring for and riding a horse. Horses can be beneficial in the development of sensory and motor skills/abilities. For individuals with emotional challenges, the relationship that is developed with the horse can lead to an increase in self-esteem, confidence, patience, nurturance, and a sense of independence.
Charles Appelstein, who studied the usefulness of therapeutic riding for emotionally impaired children and teens states, “If a troubled child can develop a special bond with a horse it becomes easier for that child to generalize such feelings into the human world. Additionally, because the relationship with the horse is so gratifying and fulfilling, the people who work with the horse(s), the instructors, become symbols of the good feeling they, the children experience. In psychological terms, the animals become what are called, transitional objects. The riding staff reminds the children of something that feels special. Because of their association with the horses, staff members almost immediately get ‘a foot in the door,’ with respect to counseling, guiding and impacting troubled and mistrustful children/teens.”
Other animals and the property used in animal-assisted therapy at Promise Village:
- exotic birds (Eclectus Parrot, Sun Conure, Indian Ring-neck Parrot, and Quaker Parrot)
- cats (outdoor only)
- miniature goats
- miniature horses
- miniature donkeys
Promise Village has a main 12 stall horse barn, another large barn, a large indoor riding arena, an outdoor riding arena, horse trails, multiple paddocks and run-ins.
Most children/teens that come to Promise Village have little or no experience with horse or horseback riding. Safety is the first priority and each resident must learn all aspects of horse care/horsemanship before ever mounting a horse. All equine interactions and horseback riding are closely supervised. No resident is ever made to ride a horse, but the equine therapy program is typically enjoyed by all.