This story about equine therapy was selected as a winner during our 2018 summer story contest. It was submitted by Salina Ramsay, Clinical Therapist for KVC Kentucky
Marla* is an intelligent thirteen-year-old girl with cropped blonde hair and a tom-boy look. I was introduced to Marla for therapy sessions to help her work through issues of trauma, behavioral challenges and understanding her own mental health. In her young life, she had experienced challenges at home with her birth mother who struggled with substance abuse issues and complications related to severe mental health issues.
After her mother’s death, Marla went to live with her grandmother and was later adopted by her. Marla was resistant to being open to help from others and admitted she trusted no one. Marla was diagnosed with ADHD when she was in first grade and struggled with her symptoms even with medication management. Marla’s strengths included a love for animals, learning, and art, but she struggled in a traditional classroom environment. She caused disruptions and showed verbal and physical aggression on a regular basis towards teachers and peers.
Eventually, Marla was referred to The Stables, a nontraditional Fayette County public school program operating at Central Kentucky Riding For Hope, (CKRH), located at the outer edge of The Kentucky Horse Park. She had some success there, but it was apparent she needed more help managing her symptoms.
I received the referral for Marla at the end of March. From the beginning, I knew that working with Marla was going to be a challenge. Marla was wary of others and struggled to make friends. In our first meeting, Marla demonstrated her command of profanities and negative facial expressions and body language, but I knew I could handle this. A month later, Marla was still resistant to meeting with me, often not talking to me or refusing to meet with me at all. She continued to state, “I hate therapists and social workers.”
At a loss of what to do next, I referred Marla to the Summer Therapeutic Riding program at CKRH. This equine therapy program would let Marla work with horses to learn about their grooming, how to ride them and the type of communication needed to work with animals. Her grandmother was willing and optimistic. When I called to suggest the program, her grandmother said, “Oh, I was so afraid you were going to say you were giving up on her.” Which is something they had unfortunately heard before from people when things got too tough. But I knew I could help Marla. I knew that she could benefit from this type of therapy.
From that day forward, things with Marla began to change. Marla began to focus, make eye contact and most important: smile! Through the therapy and working with horses Marla learned new communications skills, patience, compassion for others and began to open up about her emotions. Marla now regularly laughs, has great energy and participates in our therapy sessions. She shares her artwork, writing and talks about her past. Sometimes she even shows vulnerability and tears come to her eyes.
While I and Marla’s support team helped her overcome behavioral challenges, the real truth is that Marla did the hard work. Through equine therapy, she learned to trust by being open to something new. She began to listen. She began to open up. Her grandmother didn’t give up on her, I didn’t give up on her and we helped her to grow. It is a blessing to watch such a young person blossom and grow and learn to use her abilities to the fullest. This is the gift of our work with children and families of KVC.
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*Name changed for privacy.