Medication wasn't helping Dan Ryan, a sweet but troubled teenager, and traditional counseling was sometimes a foot-tapping bore. So though his family had some doubts, he exchanged the psychologist's office for therapy in an outdoor ring with some large, soulful creatures named Honey Bee, Navajo and Jack.
Three years later, Dan and his mother say that horse therapy did more for him than any other intervention he tried.
It can sound odd, even silly, to the uninitiated. But many have gotten past the eyebrow-lifting to find that the practice known as equine-assisted psychotherapy is not analysis for horses or expensive riding lessons with a psychiatrist.
Rather, mental health professionals jettison the talky, rehashing-the-past model of therapy in favor of observing clients in action, completing tasks such as catching and haltering a horse. The theory is that the client shows something of himself in this laboratory setting, the horse reacts, and the interaction serves as a metaphor for real-life situations -- leading to meaty conversations and, ultimately, self-discovery.
The results are remarkable enough that interest in the practice -- which enjoys some popularity in pockets of the country -- is growing quickly in regions where therapies with horsey-spiritual overtones don't necessarily have an obvious audience.
"Skeptics in the East are slower to take on something new like this, but I think it is catching on now that people are seeing how well it works," said Robin Dunning, a horse specialist at the Horse Inspired Growth and Learning Center, a Parkton practice that began accepting clients this summer.
The horses, the thinking goes, are sentient and even wise creatures who often mimic the behaviors of their human companions, and this quality means they can play a critical role in nudging clients toward fresh insights. Unlike dogs, horses aren't endlessly affectionate and accepting; they don't just do what they are told. If someone is afraid or angry, the horse will react in kind, throwing that behavior right back. In this way, the animals act as unbiased feedback machines.
"You don't realize how you're acting with people until you get with the horses," said Dan, a skinny, polite 15-year-old with a quiet sense of humor. "Because the horse is like a mirror image of yourself. I could be in a bad mood or have had a bad day, and I come here, and the horse treats me the same way I have been treating the horse. If I'm grouchy, the horse is grouchy. If I'm stubborn, the horse will be stubborn.
"People might say I'm in a bad mood. Like my mom. But I'm in denial," he went on. "Then I come here and I realize I am in a bad mood because the horse shows it ... and I can change it."
In typical sessions, individuals or groups do not gallop off or even so much as swing up on a horse. But therapists might complicate an assignment by asking clients, for example, to guide a horse over a jump without speaking. Or a family might be required to link arms and then cooperate to place a harness on a horse together. The therapist carefully observes what ensues, then jumps in with notes and -- when the practice is working -- insightful questions.
"If you really watch the horses, they tell you a lot about clients." said Linda L. Smith, a clinical professional counselor who has practiced equine-assisted psychotherapy (often referred to as EAP) on a farm in Forest Hill in Harford County since 2004. "Horses are good therapists."
Some who do this work go so far as to insist the horses are keenly aware of what they are doing. "The horse is an active participant, healer, instructor in the process," said Terry Lewis, the director of Great Strides Therapeutic Riding in Montgomery County. "You have to really be bilingual in the language of the horse to do this work and in your knowledge of the human psyche."
Others are less sure that the horses' actions are intentional, but they do say that what the horse does and how clients interpret that are critical to the process. Several therapists said that in one session in the ring, they can unearth issues that would take months in an office.
The psychologists, clinical social workers and other therapists who use the approach work differently depending on their training, though most partner with a horse expert during sessions. The modality has been used to treat teenagers and adults seeking counseling for problems including addiction, depression and grief.
Some adolescents who have been resistant to traditional therapy seem to take a shine to the equine alternative. Pam Spring, a supervisor at the Baltimore County Department of Social Services, recently connected some foster care teenagers to equine-assisted psychotherapy and was thrilled with how responsive they were -- even those who typically "moan and groan" about such groups.