Horses Help Youth Impacted by Trauma

from Here & Now, Leake & Watts newsletter, Winter 2016

“The one thing we know is that kids who are involved in the criminal justice system have experienced high rates of trauma in their lives,” explains Lisa Crook, Director of Juvenile Justice Programs at Leake & Watts. “By the time a young person gets to us, they’ve experienced so many traumatic events that they have difficulty engaging with others and seeing how they fit within the community around them.”

Youth who have experienced extensive trauma early in their lives struggle to form healthy attachments with caregivers and peers. They are more susceptible to stress and anger, struggle to control and express their emotions, and often make poor choices that lead to early involvement in the juvenile justice system. Further, studies have shown that one night in detention is the greatest predictor of a youth’s trajectory further into the system.


Yet, even though we know that early trauma adversely impacts future health, education, employment and social outcomes as youth move into adulthood, interventions can make a meaningful difference and improve the trajectory of these young lives.

Research indicates that executive brain functioning and cognitive processes continue to develop through one’s mid-20s. This means that we can help teens restore more beneficial, healthier and effective capabilities. But helping youth address trauma is no small task. In many cases, far-reaching and innovative measures are needed in order to be truly effective.

One unique approach is under way at Woodfield Cottage operated by Leake & Watts. Woodfield falls under the jurisdiction of the Westchester County Department of Probation and is the only secure detention facility supporting youth from throughout the lower Hudson Valley who have committed crimes. We brought in some special “therapists” to Woodfield, weighing more than 1,000 pounds each on average, elegant and furry with flowing manes who are primarily interested in chomping away at the grass down below them.

Mindful that we must address trauma in order to have positive outcomes, we employ a wide array of interventions. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy – therapy with horses - is just one of the approaches that we are using to help youth address trauma and other forms of adversity.


The growing practice, which has been used to treat depression, post-traumatic stress, and autism, as well as to work with individuals with physical disabilities, is relatively new to supporting youth involved in detention settings. “Horses are quite in tune socially and emotionally. They are ‘in the moment’ and provide honest feedback to the people in their presence by moving closer or moving away based on their read of someone’s

emotional state,” Jen D’Agostino, Clinical Services Supervisor, explains.


Several horses from the Bronx Equestrian Center visit Woodfield each week for hour-long therapy sessions with youth. Small groups of youth are given a task, such as creating an obstacle like a log in a pathway and taking a horse through it. Then youth work with the horses, unmounted, and help them overcome the obstacle as trained equine professionals and D’Agostino observe from the sidelines.

“The horses give the youth in-the-moment feedback on their emotional state that they might be unaware of otherwise. If the horse moves back, they know they are putting something negative out there. This way, they get to really practice different ways of interacting instead of just talking about what

they would do in traditional therapy.”

“It was a learning experience about how I react to others. To be honest, I think it’s starting to change my attitude and my actions,” Woodfield resident

Michael* reflected. D’Agostino explains that interaction with horses provides an experience-based therapy in which youth are able to form attachments and express emotions despite past trauma. “Animals provide a very safe, healthy model for attachment. When that initial model is

insecure or unhealthy, creation of future secure attachments is challenging. In some of our sessions, participants have shared things – secrets and struggles - with the horses that they’ve never shared with another human being because they don’t feel they can trust people,” explains D’Agostino. “During a session, I have a window into how youth interact with the world. Then we help the youth to draw bridges and see parallels with their experiences with the horses and how they can apply some of the things they’ve learned in the outside world.”

“I told the horses a lot, but I still have a lot of stress on my chest,” Dante* responded to one session. “You have to go through the storm to make it.” Coupled with counseling and a host of supportive, restorative programs at Woodfield, Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy adds experiences that help

the youth understand how they interact with others, informing treatment plans and relationships. “It’s incredible,” Crook says. “Through the horses, the kids are able to process emotions and feelings in a way that happens so much faster than in the traditional therapist-youth relationship. They start projecting what they’re feeling and what they’ve gone through on the horse, and the therapist is able to use that to keep processing with the youth.”


Across our 48 programs, Leake & Watts is committed to employing innovative and evidence-based approaches, such as Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy, to address the myriad of challenges faced by the children, adults, and families we support to help them overcome adversity to positively direct their lives. “The people we support are such a diverse group of individuals, but many share a history of trauma,” Crook says.

“As research continues to emerge, we need to be able to offer innovative therapeutic approaches. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model, and animal-assisted therapies are one way that we’ve been able to successfully treat some very difficult-to-reach youth.”


*We have changed names of participants to protect the anonymity of youth in our Juvenile Justice programs.

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