The Barn, a program of Harmony Adoptions, is dedicated to strengthening children and families through the use of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). EAP is an experiential therapy that integrates horses into the counseling process. We serve children who have experienced physical and emotional trauma and/or neglect and have been removed from their birth families. A child’s reaction to stress can result in behaviors that present problems for foster and adoptive parents and can become barriers to success. The Barn offers EAP to children and youth in foster care or in adoptive families.
As Jimmy and his adoptive mother Martha walked down to the arena for their second Equine Assisted Psychotherapy session, I could sense the tension between them. Jimmy, a smart but shy 11 year old, had endured years of severe neglect with his birth family, and his adoption had only been finalized one year ago.
As soon as they entered the ring, Martha began airing her grievances. She listed her current frustrations with Jimmy, including his inability to remember to brush his teeth, put on clean clothes, or put his dishes in the sink. “It’s like I have to tell him how to do every little thing. It’s like he’s 4 years old, instead of 11 years old. It just doesn’t make sense!”
As usual, I turned to the experiential nature of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, and I gave Jimmy the challenge of catching the horse, Jackson. For several minutes Jimmy stood in front of Jackson, puzzling over the tangled mess of leather that was the halter. Jackson, an old and reliable horse, waited patiently. Finally, Jimmy looked up toward Martha and said, “I don’t know how to do this because I’ve never done it before. Mom, can you help me?” Martha’s eyes grew wide and then filled with tears. “Oh my goodness”, she said, turning to me, “He’s never done it before. He doesn’t know how. Brushing his teeth, the laundry, the dishes – he’s never done any of these things before”.
I could see the realizations wash over her face. Jimmy had lived in cars, and tents, and hotels. He had scavenged for food to keep his younger siblings alive. He had lived for so long in survival mode, he had never experienced the lessons that we take for granted as part of a whole and healthy childhood. He was capable of these tasks, certainly, he just needed his adoptive mother to take his hand, and walk him through the parts of his childhood that he had missed.
Martha and Jimmy hugged and then, each with a hand on the halter, walked toward Jackson, intent on accomplishing their mission together.