At Platte Valley Youth Services Center, horse therapy inspires change

A new equine-assisted psychotherapy program at Platte Valley Youth Services Center (YSC) started with a simple bumper sticker. Valerie Krier, assistant director of the center, saw a sticker that read “Gotta Ride" with a horse on the back of staff counselor Lucinda Sinclair’s car. “I want to bring horses to Platte Valley,” Krier told Sinclair. “Our youth could really benefit from a program like that.” 

A horse lover who owns six horses of her own, Sinclair agreed. She could bring the horses. To address the youths’ therapy needs, Krier sponsored Sinclair to take Greg Kersten’s OK Corral certification seminar for equine-assisted psychotherapy. Kersten began the program when he was working with at-risk youth who were incarcerated. The OK Corral program has expanded to provide training applications for connecting horses with veterans, domestic violence survivors, families and businesses. 
 
“Youth can talk to and trust animals more than people sometimes,” Sinclair said. “They can tell their stories.” Working with horses elicits strong responses from people, inspiring them to think about their lives and how they operate in new and unexpected ways, she explained. 
 
In the equine therapy group’s first session on Nov. 14, Sinclair saw this unique dynamic firsthand. The program focuses on ground exercises and interaction with the horses rather than riding. In one exercise, four young women laid out a rope and tried to keep the horse contained within its boundary. They couldn’t do it. They wanted to touch the horse rather than keep it in the boundary formed by the rope, and they found it difficult to communicate and coordinate with each other. 
 
“This reminds me of my addiction,” said one of the participants. “I can have all the support in the world to stay in a circle of sobriety, but I have to want to do it.” 
 
Another area where youth can learn from horses is “re-circling.” When horses encounter something unpredictable in their environment, they move back from it and then move toward it at an angle, explained Sinclair. “We want youth to take the same idea and use it in their lives. We want them to pull back from something unfamiliar or difficult, gather resources, and then approach again from a different angle. 
 
“This works for everyone,” she said. “We all encounter situations where it helps to ask, ‘How about a re-circle?’” 
 
Working with horses can also help youth learn to communicate more effectively, according to Sinclair. “There are different communication zones on horses. The front means stop, the middle means you’re working with the horse and walking beside it, and the back is the push zone. It makes them want to move.” 
 
Recognizing and working within different communication zones can help youth learn to take different approaches depending on the situation and their goals, Sinclair explained.
 
The center is planning to offer both individual and group sessions twice a month to high-risk youth with emotional-health challenges. In addition to counselors, the program includes a horse handler and security staff.
 
Sinclair is excited to see how the young women react to the program. “People really respond to horses. I think it’s because they’re so much bigger than we are. It’s an opportunity to have a relationship with an animal that is somewhat domesticated but somewhat wild,” she said. “It’s a special connection that’s hard to put into words.”