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Helping Children Develop Empathy Through Therapeutic Riding

One of the skills essential to mental health is the ability to access empathy and compassion for others and ourselves. Without empathy relationships are nearly impossible, and when we lose compassion for ourselves self-destructive behavior follows. I have worked with many children who have distanced themselves from emotion for various reasons. Sometimes a lack of awareness of how we or another person is feeling emotionally is related to psychiatric disorders like ADD or ADHD. In other cases, the ability to dissociate can be a very helpful coping strategy when someone has suffered neglect, abuse, or even the ordinary pains of human relationships. However, when we are too distant from our emotional states, and those of others, the consequences can be damaging. Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy is a particularly expedient therapy to help children and adolescents attend to emotional states, and consequently develop empathy for others and compassion for themselves.

Rachel (names and details have been changed to protect her identity) is a smart, plucky, strong-minded 11-year-old child who suffers from severe ADHD. Her unrelenting determination will likely help her towards the goals she sets for herself in the future. However, she has a hard time listening to directions, focusing on tasks related to home and school, and often simple interactions at home escalate into all out battles with her parents and siblings. If Rachel is asked how disagreements start she often doesn’t know. Her attention is focused elsewhere, and before she knows it she is getting reprimanded for disrespectful behavior. Her experiences with Willie have helped her learn to attend to both her feelings, and the experiences of others. Rachel has developed her ability to think about what the therapeutic pony (Willie) is feeling, and slowly transfer that skill to communication with friends and family.

In some sessions, after we joined together to get Willie ready to be ridden, Rachel has asked to hold the dressage whip (so that she could mimic the accomplished riders in the barn), rapidly mounts the pony, and immediately puts the pony to work using a strong quick kick and a tap with the whip. Rachel does all of this before she has taken time to attend to the pony’s physical and emotional state. As soon as she began using these strong aids I asked Rachel to stop and think about what the pony might be thinking and experiencing. I told her to imagine what it is like to have a saddle and bridle on, and especially what it might be like to feel the pressure of the whip and a kick. These questions surprised her and caused her to pause. Her eyes seemed to get wider as she thought about what Willie’s experience might be. Her body immediately slowed down and she was able to imagine that he might not like her rather quick strong aids, and in fact might enjoy his work with her more if she gave him gentle understanding aids instead.

Rachel and I made a natural connection from this revelation to her relationship with her family and friends. While it will take many reminders and new experiences with Willie over the next few years, Rachel was able to begin to incorporate the emotions of others in various interactions. If her mother asks her to get her homework done Rachel is beginning to be able to imagine how her mother might feel, or why her mother is asking her to do her homework, or if a fight begins and starts to grow, she can think about her own feelings as well as her impact on the parent annoying her to get something done. When Rachel stops to imagine how someone else is feeling, her body slows down and at times she is able tear herself away from internal and external distractions. As the dissociative effect of the distractions lessen, she is able to connect to others and to her own emotions at the same time.

Her relationship with Willie and her concern for his wellbeing has moved her from rapid, distracted, and seemingly indifferent or “selfish” behaviors to measured, pensive and caring thoughts and actions.

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