Equine-Assisted Therapy Program
The Rehabilitation of Youth in Conflict with the Law, Equine Assisted Therapy Program ran from 2008 to 2011. The program, which focused on youths aged 13 to 17 who used illicit drugs, was delivered by the Partners in Process Equine Learning Centre in Owen Sound, Ontario. As a non-custodial measure to help rehabilitate and reintegrate young offenders into mainstream society, the program supported the goals of the Youth Justice Fund.
Participants worked with horses inside an arena during a progressive series of up to 12 one-hour sessions. The sessions were designed to help participants improve their communication, relationship and problem-solving skills. In the process, they learned to address the underlying factors that lead to substance abuse.
A total of 75 youths participated in the program. Although the program included 12 sessions, most youths referred by the Crown attorney completed only three to five sessions. None of the participants had reoffended at the time of the evaluation.
The program also included peer monitoring and support. Several graduates became champions for the program: some described their experiences to school groups, while others attended sessions as mentors. Other graduates have helped with fundraising.
Cliff Bilyea, M.B.A., completed a process-and-impact evaluation of the program. A past president of the Kitchener-Waterloo United Way, Mr. Bilyea is a management consultant and the current chair of Community Foundation Grey Bruce. He has also served on the boards of local hospitals and the Community Care Access Centre.
The evaluation process involved site visits and discussions with participants, the program director, operations manager, local Crown attorney, program coordinator for victim services, and members of the Partners in Process board of directors.
Many participants said that the neutral environment contributed to the success of the program — that it did not feel like they were in a therapy session or listening to another lecture. As a result, many felt comfortable discussing their problems with the Program Director and started to take responsibility for their actions.
During the initial sessions, participants learned that horses often respond directly to body language. As a result, participants began to understand the impact of non-verbal communication. Learning to control the horses helped the participants build their self-esteem.
In interviews, most participants said that the program inspired several significant changes in their lives, including:
- a reduction in their overall level of anger;
- less interest in using illicit drugs;
- improvements in their situations at home (for those living at home);
- a more positive attitude, increased levels of self-respect and self-esteem; and
- an increased ability to set, and work towards, personal goals and make better lifestyle choices.
A lack of transportation prevented many participants from attending sessions. Ontario’s Grey-Bruce region is large, and the city of Owen Sound has the region’s only public transportation system.
The program attracted few referrals during its first year. Once word began to spread among social-service, police and court agencies, referrals increased significantly.
Involving parents and caregivers in the latter phase of the program would increase overall effectiveness.
The mentoring and peer-support aspect of the program encouraged graduates to continue to build their self-confidence and decision-making skills.
The Equine Assisted Therapy program succeeded in helping participants address their substance abuse problems.
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