by Joseph Nowinski, PhD and Abigail Jeffries

It is a common observation among therapists that children and adolescents can be verbally non-communicative, and this is especially true when it comes to grieving a loss. This tendency to avoid expressing grief can affect school work, and also be detrimental to overall emotional well-being if the grief remains unaddressed. Given their natural inclination to reticence at this developmental stage, finding ways to help children work through grief can be challenging but also clinically vital.

Our previous posts about equine-assisted therapy looked at how working with horses can help victims of PTSD and at-risk youth overcome the obstacles that stand between them and a brighter future. This time, we’ll examine how a therapeutic riding program impacted children who were mourning the death of a family member

Taking Grief to the Ranch

As part of its summer program, the Columbus-based Mount Carmel Hospice and Evergreen Center support group for grieving school-age children and their families offered a six-week hippotherapy program at the Buckeye Ranch, an equestrian center in Ohio. Dr. Hilda R. Glazer, a play therapist and bereavement counselor, and her team investigated whether this program encouraged the processing of grief [Glazer, Hilda R.; Clark, Myra D.; Stein, David S. The Impact of Hippotherapy on Grieving Children. Journal of Hospice and Palliative Nursing, Vol.6 No.3, p171-175, July-September 2004].

Therapists worked with Evergreen staff to design and run the program with assistance from adult volunteers.  Unlike animal-assisted therapies that take place in an office or in-patient setting, equine-assisted therapy takes place in a non-clinical environment and includes the element of movement of the horse with the participant.

In the study, Glazer observes that a shared group experience in which a child feels safe to express feelings may be key to the processing of grief. She notes, “Moving the support group to the stable has the potential to add another dimension to interventions with children.”

For the Evergreen program, a parent or grandparent participated by bringing the child to the ranch and staying for the duration of the session, sometimes joining in the actual activity. Each child, ranging in age from 4 to 14, was prescreened for the program and paired with an adult volunteer with whom they worked for all sessions. The outward objective was for the child to improve their riding ability and knowledge of horses, including horse care.

Examples of specific goals and activities included using grooming tools properly; identifying the horse’s physical and emotional needs; balancing in the stirrups; discussing trust; riding the horse at the walk and trot, sometimes over ground poles; and leading the horse while blindfolded to experience trust and reliance. Activities such as bathing and even painting the horse were designed to help the children express emotion and demonstrate positive nurturing.

After each session, the children shared lessons they had learned from working with the horses that day and discussed how they might be able to apply this new knowledge in their own lives. The final session’s closing circle aimed at getting the children to focus on how the loss of their loved one had impacted them and how they could use what they had learned in the program to process their grief and move forward in their lives.

Coding the Data

The family members who participated with the children were asked to think about and write down what had taken place in each session and how their child had reacted. An independent qualitative researcher analyzed these writings and used open coding procedures to categorize them so they could be used as the study’s data.

The data were sorted into three main categories: confidence building, trust building, and communication. Confidence building included written comments that pertained to developing a sense of mastery, independence, and overcoming fears. Trust building included comments related to the nonjudgmental aspects of the child-horse relationship and the child’s sense of being in control when working with the horse. Written observations about the child’s verbal contact with the horse, such as sharing secrets and speaking affectionately to the horse, comprised the communication category. Glazer and her team reviewed the independent analysis, checking the content validity and reliability of the coding process, and then reached a consensus on the interpretation of the data.

Building Confidence and Trust while Having Fun

The program was found to build self-trust and self-confidence in the children, who discovered that they could learn the handling and riding skills that enabled them to get their horse to respond.

By working together with their horse to complete tasks, the children built a trusting relationship with their horse that extended to confiding in the horse. One parent encouraged her child to tell the horse anything he wanted to, and the child said he did. (These secret thoughts stayed between the horse and the child.) One child was observed whispering frequently into his horse’s ear, sometimes about the recently deceased family member.

Children who were initially hesitant about coming to the sessions went to being enthusiastic. Over time they communicated more with others, and they were clearly enjoying the activities with the horses along the way

The data showed that children were transferring improved behaviors learned from working with the horses to their home lives. Family members observed children becoming more open and trusting, improving in their parent-child relationships, and increasing their initiation of communication and leadership. In one instance, a child led his parent by the hand out of the woods where they had been walking, telling her it was just like leading his horse.

Moving Forward through Empowerment

Grief, of course, instills a sense of powerlessness in all of us, child and adult alike.

Glazer’s team concluded that the nonjudgmental nature of the child-horse relationship, the child’s growing confidence that the horse would respond to their commands, and the horse accepting the child as its leader, combined to make therapeutic work with horses especially effective in helping a grieving child to heal.

Perhaps one of the most successful elements of the Evergreen equine therapy program examined by Glazer is that it enabled children to build grief processing skills while giving them a break from grieving. They learned valuable strategies to reclaim their lives as a “background task” while focusing on their horse handling responsibilities and simply having fun.

Abigail Jeffries is a freelance writer specializing in health and mental health issues. She can be reached at abigailjeffries2010@gmail.com

Joseph Nowinski, PhD is a clinical psychologist and author.  

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