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Horse Therapy - Changing Lives

As published in 'Your Horse Magazine'
A Special Report by Julie Brown

In the US, bringing horses together with children who have mental or emotional disorders has had startling results. Julie Brown talks to Franklin Levinson who's bringing this kind of therapy to the UK

Children with autism and attention deficit disorder often struggle to communicate - but put them with horses and they can achieve so much. That's what American Franklin Levinson found when he introduced Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) to children with serious emotional challenges. 

Therapy with horses has been around for ages, but what Franklin did was to take the work of the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association a step further to help children with severe anti-social behavior. 

What is EFL?

EFL is a therapy where the children learn about themselves, other people and interacting with the world. It's not about teaching riding or horse care skills and the children don't need any previous experience of horses.

"It's been clinically proven that just being in the vicinity of horses changes our brainwave patterns", says Franklin. "They have a calming effect which helps stop people becoming fixated on past or negative events - giving them a really positive experience".
EFL has proven to be particularly useful for children with autism, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and bipolar disorders - all of whom may find it difficult to communicate, interact with other people and carry out instructions.

The results are startling. Even those showing severe anti-social and aggressive behavior become calmer and more communicative. 

How it works

"Horses react as a mirror to the person who's with him" says Franklin. "He's a prey animal so he wants to feel safe and is always on the lookout for predators. A horse will become very fearful if he's with someone who's aggressive, noisy, disrespectful or too controlling. On the other hand, if the person makes requests rather than demands the horse will begin to cooperate. He is always looking for a leader."

This is why horses are so good to use as therapy for children. A child who is given just a little insight into dealing with a horse in the right way can become the natural leader the horse is looking for. The horse in return feels safe and peaceful and will cooperate with what the child asks of him. 

Children, even those with emotional or mental disorders, can often manage a horse more easily and more quickly than adults. Children accept things at face value and are more open to developing an equal relationship rather than trying to control.

A horse is looking for simple and clear commands, and a child, with the right encouragement and in the right situation, can carry these out very effectively. "Go, stop, back up, turn this way or that way" is all that's needed.

"For children with mental and emotional disorders the positive benefits of getting a horse to carry out these commands are often profound." Says Franklin.

"Children with ADD will focus on the horse for long periods while grooming or leading the horse when usually they can't concentrate long enough to do anything much. Autistic children who are withdrawn and living very much in their own world will begin to express themselves - often using new words or gestures they've never expressed before.

"Once children realize what they can achieve their self-esteem increases in leaps and bounds. Imagine what it must feel like to lead an animal through an obstacle course, stopping and starting when you want to, when you usually find it difficult to concentrate, communicate or stay in control?".

EFL in the UK

Franklin wants to bring EFL to the UK and he's already been over here to spread the word and to hold an introductory course for people interested in becoming EFL therapists. A full training course must be undertaken before being allowed to do this work, and Franklin is planning one for later this year.

horses and mental disorders
EFL Horses are assessed to ensure they are suitable for working with children.

Anyone desperate to get started can train in America with a qualified therapist - they would then be able to practise as an EFL therapist over here. Franklin is happy to mentor people on his ranches, in Colorado and Hawaii, while they learn the skills needed. EFL is well-accepted in the US and there are strict training courses, protocols and standards to adhere to.

All the children are referred for EFL through a physician, therapist or agency and the funding for their treatment comes from these sources.

The horses

There isn't a specific type or breed of horse that is suitable for EFL. It really is an individual thing. All horses, perhaps with the exception of stallions and competition horses, can be used for EFL. What is important is that they have a calm, patient and trainable temperament. 

Safety is the top priority and every horse has to undergo a thorough assessment before being considered for EFL. The horse must not kick, rear, buck, bite or mouth and he must be sound.

During therapy the children are asked to carry out exercises including leading and lunging, sometimes over cavaletti. The horse must be capable of doing all of these without getting stressed.

EFL horses have to carry out commands without being touched and cant be easily fazed by children working in different ways. For example, a child might lead from the wrong side or not stand in the best place when halting him.
Meet Franklin Levinson

Franklin's dad, a polo player, started taking him to the yard when he was about seven. He became a polo "hot walker" and was quickly in demand as the riders recognized his talent for settling horses. This experience was the start of Franklin's lifelong interaction with horses and being near them made him feel peaceful and calm.

His career followed an unusual path - he was a polo player, worked as an instructor at a summer camp and was a music therapist working with emotionally disturbed people. He then began to think about how horses could help people with emotional challenges and a search on the internet took him to the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) website - an organization which was already doing a kind of EFL.

The association's work struck a chord with Franklin - he knew that working with horses and people in this way was something he could do, so he went on a variety of courses to get started. 

Returning to his ranch on the Hawaiian island of Maui, Franklin started the Maui Horse Whisperer Experience, an interactive, hands-on experience of horses for non-horse people. Over time he discovered that he had a natural way with children and the obvious next step was to develop EFL for children who had emotional or mental disorders. 

20 September, 2011 ~ A NOTE FROM FRANKLIN

“I have been providing seminars in Equine Facilitated Learning, and also actual sessions, in numerous countries for many years. I have personally seen the miracles that mutually successful (for both horse and human) interaction with horses can present.

This lovely email is testimony not to me, but to the magic, mystery and wonderful benefits to all – including the horses – that come come from experiences with horses that have compassion, kindness, knowledge, patience, skill and good communication at their core. My hope is that some of you reading this email will be inspired to consider experiencing Equine Facilitated Learning for yourself as a way to assist and uplift yourself, others and perhaps, decide to learn more about it...