SpotlightSeventeen-year-old Kelly admits to being a hard person when she first arrived at Timberline Knolls for treatment of substance abuse and self-harming behaviors. She trusted no one and had little use for the therapies or the other residents at the Lemont treatment center.
That is until she met Annie, a feisty horse brought to the center as part of Timberline’s new equine therapy program. Kelly, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy, felt her guard dropping when she stepped into the corral.
"It was amazing because I used to volunteer at a therapeutic riding arena for children with disabilities and I strayed away from that when I started using," Kelly says. "But it was also kind of hard to be around horses and realize what I’d given up because of the negative decisions I’d made."
At first Kelly ignored Annie and stuck with the horses with more easygoing personalities. But after five or six sessions, Kelly realized Annie was a lot like her. Once she began giving her time totally to Annie, things began to change for the teen.
"She’s the one I go to constantly. It feels good that something trusts me, even if it’s a little pony. It’s a start."
Helping residents learn to trust again and develop a relationship is one of the reasons Timberline’s staff decided in May to try equine therapy. Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center for females ages 12 to adult that focuses on a variety of illnesses, including substance abuse and eating disorders. For many patients, relating to the horses gives them a different avenue to recovery, says Dr. Kim Dennis, medical director.
"It’s a way to shut off the verbal part of the brain and to tap into some of the more emotional parts of the brain, the parts that are more connected with a belief in something bigger than the disease which is killing them," Dennis says.
Equine therapy occurs every other Saturday, when the horses are brought to Timberline. The residents break into groups and are given an activity to work on with the horses, such as grooming or putting on a harness. An equine specialist and a therapist observe each resident’s interaction with the horse and with the other members of their group. After the horses leave, residents and therapists discuss what went on that day and how some of what they’ve learned can transfer into daily life.
"We take what we do with the equine and we pull it into some of the traditional therapy," says Melissa Rocchi, program development coordinator.
Rocchi says the biggest impact she’s seen with the equine therapy is the connection residents make with the animals. "So many have not known a safe connection and to go up with one of these horses, which are huge, and to connect with them is the most amazing thing I’ve seen … They are learning to turn over their trust."
Kelly admits trust has been an issue for her, one she works on each time she’s around Annie. "I’ve had a pretty hard time trusting people for a long time. It feels like every time I let someone in I get screwed over," she says. "It’s nice to be around someone who can’t tell your secrets or talk back to you."
For a lot of the residents, the ability to trust the horses opens the door for them to practice being in human relationships, where they have the power of choice and can set boundaries, Dennis says. And for the parents, it’s a chance to see tangible steps in their daughter’s recovery.
"The parents really like it because they have seen an impact on their kids and for a parent to see their daughter feeling esteem about something, anything—for some of these parents it’s been a long time since their child has felt good about herself without doing anything to destroy herself in the process," Dennis says.
For Kelly, working with the horses has been the first time in a long time that she has opened the door to anything other than substance abuse and self-harm. "Sometimes it feels like it can’t get any worse, but every time you say that, it can if you keep making negative decisions. You have to open up and let someone in," Kelly says. "I became more open to people through the horses."
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