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Horses bring healing through camp

Happy shouts and laughter find their way through the woodlands, across the pond and down the winding “pig trail” to Camp Ride and Real.

Yellow tents dot the hillside and the sounds of horse hooves are muffled in the soft sod in the corral.

The participants at Camp Ride and Real are a mixed bag – kids, ages 7 to 15 and in between, parents, university volunteers and a staff of dedicated, caring professionals who believe that the great outdoors coupled with the friendship of a 1,2000 animal have tremendous therapeutic value for troubled young people.

Camp Ride and Real near Banks is owned and operated by Southeast Alabama Counseling and Behavioral Specialist Services. The agency is located in 13 counties with recreational facilities in Banks, Cottonwood and Greenville.

Dee Dawkins, formerly of Pike County, is the president of the board of directors of S.E. AL CARES (Children and Recreational Equestrian Services), which has been established as a non-profit organization.

“CARES” employs the use of equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) in working with young people between the ages of three to 18 who have been referred by the Department of Human Resources, juvenile probation offices or pediatrician offices.

“The young people who participate in our recreational services learn about themselves and others by participating in structured activities with the horses, then processing their feelings, behaviors and patterns,” Dawkins said. “EPA essentially reveals insights through analogy and metaphor. By relating their experiences with the horses to other people in their lives, our clients can begin to examine their negative behaviors and understand how to change them into positive behaviors.”

But why a horse?

“There are many reasons,” Dawkins said. “First and foremost, horses are large animals. Learning to safely and effectively work around an animal that weighs more than 1,000 pounds requires patience, trust, compassion, awareness and self-confidence. Gaining or enhancing those traits alone can be quite an accomplishment.”

Dawkins said horses have the added benefit of being very social animals, with a strict hierarchy and societal rules that are similar to human communities.

“For example, by relating the pecking order that is found among horses to the pecking order that exists in various human situations, our clients learn whether they are leaders or followers and the strengths of both positions,” he said.

Horses have clear-cut personalities, and Dawkins said most clients choose to work with an animal that is most like them in personality characteristics.

“This can be an effective tool for understanding one’s own self and how others relate to yourself,” Dawkins said. “Perhaps the most important aspect of using horses in therapy is that they are honest creatures. A horse’s inability to lie can be invaluable in seeing what a client may be attempting to hide or manipulate. Horses communicate by their body language. Body language can reveal a client’s real self and begin to break down barriers and communication blocks.”

Other than the use of a 1,200-pound animal as a therapeutic tool, the opportunity to escape the four walls of a therapist’s office is extremely beneficial when working with troubled young people.

“The corral or pasture provides a natural setting that is different from the office,” Dawkins said. “The clients don’t feel as closely watched or focused on by their therapist. Often during an EAP session, clients don’t even realize or acknowledge that therapy is actually taking place.

“A client may be able to control or skirt around a situation during office therapy but will find it more difficult to do so when working a large animal where they must respond immediately.”

From the moment they are teamed with a horse, clients use the same coping mechanisms that they use with other stressful factors in their lives.

“So clients’ issues usually rise to the surface much more quickly during EAP than they do in the office and issues can be dealt with sooner,” Dawkins said. “Our associates work together so that the clients can learn to change their approach to their lives, act in more positive ways and understand themselves better. It’s working. We see it every time we bring these young people out here.”

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Dawkins’ point was made by the immediate change in attitude of one young man who is autistic. “We’ll have clients like, Wes, who, at first, refuse to go into the corral with a horse,” Dawkins said. “They’ll say they aren’t going to touch that nasty ol’ animal. But once they bond with a horse, you can’t keep them away.”

Dawkins worked with Wes, first getting him to look eyeball to eyeball with the horse.

“The bonding begins when they make eye contact,” Dawkins said. “Then, it’s confirmed by gently stroking the horse and gaining its confidence. When the two have bonded, the horse will let the client lift its hoof, showing that the two trust and respect each other.”

As Dawkins talked, Wes repeated the stroking process, picked up the horse’s hoof and grinned. “The simple act of bonding gives the client a feeling of self-confidence and builds self-esteem,” Dawkins said. “The client realizes, ‘hey, I can do this,’ and you can see the pride they feel.”

A short time later, Wes was back in the corral with his new friend. His laughter blended with the laughter of the other young people who were having a great outdoor experience.

“There’s just something about being in the outdoors that lifts your spirit,” Dawkins said. “And, when your spirits are lifted, attitudes change and good things happen.”