New Mexico's Pet Resource FALL/WINTER 2001



By Anne Schumann

Who would think that just plain horsin' around could actually be a therapeutic learning experience?

Claire Barr knows the answer to this all to well from her years of being around horses and observing their interaction with children. Claire, who is a licensed therapist and treatment coordinator for La Familia, Inc., a multi-faceted social service organization in Albuquerque, noticed how horses tend to calm children displaying emotions. "I watched the horses and children interact," she explains, "and knew there had to be something deeper to what was going on."

With the support of La Familia, Claire designed a horse therapy program for foster children who had been abused or were raised in a home where abuse was going on. La Familia is a non-profit, family-based treatment program, helping children from ages 3 to 18 to work through serious emotional and behavioral issues. "Our goal," says Claire, "is to have a healthy child, which often means incorporating something more than conventional therapy." Thus, the opportunity arose for her to experiment with horse therapy.

Although the horse is, obviously, a large, powerful animal, it is naturally fearful and untrusting of humans until someone takes the time and patience necessary to build a trusting relationship. Likewise, abused children are fearful, untrusting and, as Claire points out, they often have difficulty with empathy. "My intention," says Claire, "is to pair kids with horses to work on trust, relationship building and empathy, with the hope that what the children learn will transfer to their human experiences."

In a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News, Jim Koch, a certified equine assisted therapist, was quoted as saying: "This approach is particularly helpful with belligerent, disrespectful and bully-type children and with children who, because of abuse, are afraid. Children tend to respect power," Koch said, "so bullies learn quickly to respect the horse, and in doing so learn important lessons about respect for others."


Tucker gets a dustin' and cleanin' (photos by Claire Barr)

Horse therapy has little to do with actually riding the horse. Rather, it's more about learning kindness and gentleness through touching, handling and grooming the horse and, in turn, being aware of the horse's reaction and body language. Once a week Claire meets with a half-dozen of "her" kids at Top Notch Farm, a ranch in Albuquerque's North Valley, where each child gets to spend an hour grooming and bonding with a horse. "I ask them what they think the horse would like, or what would make the horse happy and feel good," says Claire. While the kids brush, comb, pet and talk to the horse, Claire asks them to pay attention to what the horse is "saying." Are the horse's ears perky and forward, indicating happiness? Or, are the horse's ears back, a sign of tension or discomfort. Perhaps the horse is shifting or flinching, meaning the child may be brushing too hard or in an uncomfortable spot. Claire then discusses their answers, pointing out that in dealing with humans, this is how we should be observant and respectful of other people's feelings. Sometimes Claire finds it best to step back, letting the child have quiet time alone with the horse. "I try to have them work with the same horse each time," says Claire, " so they are in the process of building a relationship."

The good, positive relationship is the desired end result of Claire's program. "It is well-documented that kids who have been abused, often grow up to be abusers," notes Claire. Therefore, she believes it's important for these children to learn to trust something bigger than they are.

When asked about the progress of her participants, Claire's eyes lit up. "The kids are so excited to go out to the barn every week," she says with pride in their achievement. "They are developing nurturing, trusting relationships; they're showing empathy skills; and, their foster parents' reactions are that they are all seeing positive changes." As for the horse, barn owner Lisa Helper says, "The horses just love it. They will stand for hours enjoying the brushing and attention."

Claire's success has motivated her to pursue certification in horse therapy whereby she can incorporate the tools of the trade into her current program. Claire will obtain her certification from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an organization whose motto is "Partnering For a Better World," a statement that reflects and understands the unique bond between horse and human.

Anne Schumann is a legal secretary and freelance writer in Albuquerque whose favorite hobby is horseback riding.

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one's soul remains unawakened.
- Anatole France

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