On a recent afternoon at Freedom Place, Chance the horse was just not cooperating with one of the residents, who was trying to groom him. She wanted him to lift his leg, but after a couple failed attempts, she was getting visibly frustrated.
“You have to let him know what’s going to happen before it happens,” said Kathy Moore, an equine therapy facilitator at Freedom Place, as she stepped in to help. “It’s just like here, we try to let you girls know what’s going to happen before it happens, so you can make a good decision.”
On the next attempt, the girl started by petting the horse’s back, then slid her hand gently down his leg, coaxing him to raise his hoof so she could scrape off the caked mud. Once she was through, she moved on to the other hoof without a hitch. She and the horse were finally in sync.
It’s these lessons in patience, communication and regulating one’s emotions that Kathy, along with Sherri Clement and the other equine therapy instructors, hope to instill in the girls at Freedom Place, a safe haven for underage victims of sex trafficking in the Houston area.
The girls at Freedom Place arrive with debilitating anxiety stemming from the trauma of being trafficked. They may have issues with self-confidence, rejection, anger, or any number of other issues.
Equine therapy is meant to bring healing to the girls by teaching them to cope. It uses horse training to teach life lessons in topics such as building healthy relationships and overcoming fear. As the girls reflect on their success and failures in the horse corral, they can apply what they’ve learned to their everyday lives.
Three weeks into the program, the number one thing the group has focused on so far is self-soothing.
“Horses run from frustration, irritation and anger,” Kathy said. “One girl walked in irritated, and the horse ran away from her. She said ‘The horse doesn’t like me,’ and I told her ‘It’s not that he doesn’t like you, it’s that your energy is throwing him.’ I told her start at the top of her head and soften every part of her body, and as she turned back around to the horse, they felt that connectivity instantly.”
Kathy said horses are especially helpful in therapy because they are attuned to human emotions, and are often reflective of their handler’s mental state. For that reason, they’re not only helpful as a learning tool for the girls, but are revealing for therapists, who can get a better read on a resident’s mental health by seeing how their horse is behaving.
After working with the horses, the girls sit down together in a group therapy session to further process their emotions. The girl who’d had trouble with Chance described what was going through her head.
“At first, I was disappointed because he wouldn’t lift his leg,” she said. “He knew I was mad, and he couldn’t cope. I had to cool down and shift my mindset first, and after that he lifted it.”
Progress like this is what Kathy, Sherri and the rest of the Freedom Place team are hoping for. The girls are only in the first stages of the program, but as they progress, they will eventually get to ride the horses.
“First, the girl has to be stable, then we use the horses to teach these life skills like team work and problem solving,” Sheri said. “After that, horsemanship is the reward. Once they’ve earned the trust and respect of the horses, then they can start riding.”
To find out more how you can support the girls at Freedom Place, go to www.arrow.org/freedom-place.