Fog surrounds eight youth gathered outside on an early October morning at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility.
But they don’t seem to notice. Their eyes are on Cooper and Jewel.
You could hear 7-year-old Cooper before he even entered the facility. The spirited, spotted Pony of America whinnied in the parking lot, his head probing outside the window of his trailer as he waited for the security gate to open.
Jewel, a 19-year-old brown quarter horse, was much calmer and quieter. She seemed content to follow anyone’s lead.
Patricia Nelson drove the trailer inside, with Lisa Harman in the passenger seat. Both work for Forward Stride, a Beaverton-based nonprofit that provides horse-centered activities and therapies to help enhance people’s quality of life.
It was their third of six weekly visits to MacLaren. The goal: to provide an alternative form of therapy for youth who may not feel comfortable or be willing to share in traditional talk sessions.
“I think for a lot of people, especially for youth or young adults, sometimes talking can be difficult,” Harman said. “Getting out in an experiential manner with the horses, a lot of times things will come up organically. We might learn things about a person that they wouldn’t offer up to us by talking to us.”
Harman is the coordinator of Forward Stride’s equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) program. That’s the official name for the type of therapy the MacLaren youth are engaging in. Instead of sitting in an office, they meet outside and work directly with the horses.
But they’re not riding. Instead, they practice walking the horses around, brushing the horses’ hair and hooves, and learning the meaning of the animals’ body language.
The program was funded by Janus Youth Programs through grants from Jackson Foundation, Rose E. Charitable Trust, and Salem Foundation.
Janus’s Hope Partnership program provides a multitude of enrichment activities at MacLaren.
Years back, Hope offered a brief equine therapy program led by a volunteer. Youth interest led Kathleen Fullerton, coordinator of Hope Partnership, to ask Janus about ways to bring the program back.
This first six-week horse program is only on a pilot basis. Janus hopes to gain funding to continue the program permanently.
The eight youth in the first group represented a broad range of backgrounds — from teens who grew up working with horses, to “city kids” who’ve only seen the animals in movies.
But they all used the same gentle hands as they stroked the horses’ backs, and the same patience as they led the animals around the lot.
In Cooper’s case, a lot of patience was required. He made it his goal to pull whomever held his lead toward the yummy green grass growing nearby.
Cooper’s mild defiance didn’t faze D.E., who grew up working with horses in Eastern Oregon. He spent much of the morning at Cooper’s side.
“They teach you patience,” D.E. said. “If you’re aggressive or if they feel threatened, they’re not gonna do what you want, and chances are they’re going to run.”
Several of MacLaren’s qualified mental health professionals (QMHPs) also attended each session to help integrate the youths’ horse experiences into their overall treatment.
“I think this is a good program for our youth because the majority, if not all of them, have trauma, and they’re not able or ready to explore that in traditional talk therapies,” said Stacey Varner, a QMHP on one of MacLaren’s intake units.
“The biofeedback between an animal and a human, it allows them to access and sort of retrain their brain. It gives them a safe environment to practice new skills and have some success.”
Plus, the horses provide a unique outlet for youth to express themselves without fear of judgment, said Kari Linton, another QMHP at MacLaren.
“The horses don’t talk back, so there’s just freedom to be yourself,” she said. “It gives them a lot of opportunity to say and be and do in whatever space they’re in at the moment.”
Varner hopes the program will become a permanent fixture on campus. The youth hope for the same.
“I’ve had other youth approach me and ask can we do it again, and can they be on the list,” Varner said.
“Horse therapy allows the youth to begin to explore and do the work they need to do that’s scary. … It gives them a reason to want to try.”
*Clarification: Forward Stride is only providing the Equine Facilitated Learning portion of the programming at MacLaren, and not the Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy. The therapy portion of MacLaren’s program is coming from the facility’s qualified mental health professionals.