Juvenile inmates make strides through equestrian therapy

Kelly Boyer, an instructor at Broad View Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies, helps lead a recent class for youth at Stevenson House Detention Center. Photos courtesy of Stevenson House Detention Center

MILFORD — An equestrian therapy program at the Stevenson House, a juvenile detention facility in Milford, is helping troubled teens gallop toward emotional growth.

“Our mission is to provide a safe environment for the kids,” the Stevenson House’s Director Katie Kenney said of the 55-bed facility, which houses boys and girls aged 12 to 19.

“They have all been charged and come to us directly from the police or from the court,” she said. “Pending their adjudication… they go on to the next stages of their treatment.”

Ms. Kenney said the Stevenson House is a level 5 facility, which is the highest security level a detention center can have.
Katie Joseph, the Stevenson’s House’s school psychologist, began the eight-week long equestrian program in 2018.

“To see the kids that have whatever reputation on the street just melt over a horse is always interesting. They want to give the horse a treat, they want to give it a hug,” she said. “It’s really rewarding to watch.”

Ms. Joseph said she is “a lifelong horse person, and I know the power of working with horses and I did some research on different methods and became certified as a (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International) instructor.”

Until recently Ms. Joseph had brought her own horses to the facility’s recreation yard for the program, which consists of 30 minutes of classroom instruction and an hour of time outside with the horses every week. But now Kelly Boyer, an instructor with Broad View Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies, brings her horses every week.

Ms. Boyer explained that the emotional skills the Stevenson House sets out to impart on its students apply directly to the work they do with the horses.

“That helps to really reinforce the skills that they’re learning through the duration of the program, because those tie directly into the behavior of horses and we can connect the two. They get a chance to actually practice what they’re learning in the classroom with the horses outside,” she said.

“It comes down to the horses’ natural instincts and behavior,” Mr. Boyer said. “They’re very sensitive to their environment and being around people and mirroring what people may feel.”

She said the animals “also give instant feedback, which is really beneficial as far as learning self-awareness. They are non-judgmental and they will give you their unconditional love no matter your situation.”

Furthermore, Ms. Boyer noted that being around such large animals was a new experience for many of these kids.

“It really encourages them to step outside their comfort zones and to try something new,” she said. “It helps increase self-esteem and confidence. It’s empowering to be able to develop a relationship with an animal that weighs 1,200 pounds.”

Katie Joseph, school psychologist at Stevenson House Detention Center, helps run the center’s equestrian program, which focuses on helping youth foster calming techniques, confidence and coping skills.

Ms. Joseph noted that the skills students learn in the program don’t just apply to farm life.

“They have to learn to read body language, the have to learn to try new things, be patient, persevere, because it’s really hard sometimes to figure out what the horse is trying to tell you,” she said.

The kids, many of whom have experienced trauma, find the horses easy to relate to.

“Horses are prey animals, which means they’re kind of always on the alert looking out for predators,” Ms. Joseph said. “Even though they were domesticated, there’s still that instinct there.”

She said the course touches on this in the classroom.

“We teach them about the fight or flight response that we all experience naturally as humans, but for them that may be kind of an elevated response,” Ms. Joseph said. “Horses have that same kind of response, so for them to be able to see that in the horse and know that happens to them as well, it just kind of makes that bond even stronger.”

She sees the program as a good alternative to talk therapy.

“The kids that we work with here are not kids who are super eager to sit down and talk about everything that’s happened to them and all their issues,” Ms. Joseph said.

“We’re kind of addressing similar issues, but we’re doing it in a way that’s a little more approachable, so the kids are a little more excited and eager to participate,” she said. “The beauty of this is we’re teaching them a skill in which they have to be able regulate themselves to be successful.”

Ms. Joseph and Ms. Boyer see many kids who give up easily in the classroom make real progress outside with the horses.

“After 8 weeks, we put on a horse show for the students that have participated where they can show off their skills to the staff. They are also able to invite their families to watch,” Ms. Boyer said.

“That’s empowering. It makes you feel good. It increases self-esteem,” she said. “I think it gives them hope and more of a sense of purpose with their life.”

Ms. Joseph remembered one teen from the program’s first session who made huge progress over the course of the program and came into his own at the horse show.

“There was one student in particular who was terrified,” she said. “We really pitch to the kids that this is at your pace, we’re not going to push you to do anything you’re not comfortable with doing, especially if you don’t feel ready.”

But this student kept coming out each week despite his fear.

“He was modeling for everyone, us included, the stuff that we were teaching in the classroom as he was working through his fear,” Ms. Joseph said. “He was willing to kind of be vulnerable in front of his peers. He was setting his own goals.”

Still, as the program came to a close the student had still not led a horse by himself.

“As the horse show approached, we told him, ‘you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. We’re just proud of you for coming out here and trying each week,’” Ms. Joseph said.

“He said, ‘no. I’m going to lead a horse at this horse show by myself,’” Ms. Joseph said. “At that first show we probably had 30 to 40 people out there watching, and he stepped up and led a horse through the obstacle course 100 percent by himself, and it was just so cool to see.”

Although Ms. Joseph said the support the equestrian program provides helps these kids make great strides, she said the students often don’t find that support elsewhere – especially if they’re being released directly into the community.

In the future, she hopes to build partnerships with potential mentors in Delaware’s equine community who would be able to provide that support for the students as they re-enter society.