Troubled teenage boys and young, untrained horses may sound like fire and gasoline, but Discovery Ranch—a residential treatment center in Mapleton, Utah—has been successfully using equine-assisted therapy, horsemanship, and colt training to help teenage boys work through emotional and behavioral issues for more than a decade.

Horse trainer Jerry Christensen didn’t plan on becoming the director of a therapeutic equine program, but that all changed when a sister program of Discovery Ranch asked if he would start a horsemanship program for their students. Christensen rose to the challenge, developing and building the program from the ground up before creating a similar program at Discovery Ranch in 2005.

Everybody benefits

Today, every student at Discovery Ranch goes through Christensen’s equine program—even those who don’t think they want to.

“Not everybody loves horses,” says Christensen, “but everybody benefits from the equine experience.”

The students complete 10 to 12 groundwork sessions before they’re allowd to ride horses or participate in colt-training activities. During their 10- to 14-month stay at the ranch, students participate in daily horse care, horsemanship lessons, colt starting, and weekly equine therapy groups with the ranch’s therapists.

Every aspect of the equine program is used to teach essential life skills and principles to students, whose reasons for being at the ranch range from mood disorders to addiction. Groundwork with the horses has proven to be especially effective at helping students understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. Christensen coaches students through what he calls “emotional scrimmages,” in which a student must guide a horse through an obstacle course without touching them or talking. The difficult task often results in tempers boiling over, providing an opportunity for Christensen to teach students healthy ways to overcome obstacles and cope with their emotions.

Equine program director, Jerry Christensen. courtesy Discovery Ranch

Healthy relationships

Throughout the program, students are pushed out of their comfort zones. They face a whole new set of challenges once they move on to horsemanship, which provides a unique form of therapy since horses give instant feedback.

“The moment a kid goes to catch a horse, that horse is already checking in, plugged in, deciding who gets to be the leader,” says Christensen.

These interactions require students to become active participants in the relationship between themselves and the horses. This can be a new and intimidating experience for a teenager who is used to letting others take the lead in relationships.

Christensen uses horsemanship to help students practice the skills needed to create healthy relationships in their lives. Working with horses teaches students that it’s important to know the parts of a relationship they can control as well as the parts they can’t. They learn how to find the balance between being firm and assertive without being aggressive. The goal is not to teach the students to assert their dominance over others, but rather to help them become leaders that others want to follow. By working on and understanding the mechanics of their relationship with horses, the students gain confidence, learn how to set boundaries, and practice appropriate ways to give and take control.

Colts and kids

Working with colts gives students the opportunity to see the concepts they’ve been learning put into practice; concepts like trust, changing behavior through perception, and accepting authority out of respect rather than fear. They gather around the rails of a round pen while Christensen works with a young horse, teaching his students about logic and emotion, horse training and psychology.

“Colt training with a young horse is really similar to an adolescent in that they lack experience, they see the world as a scary place, they have the fight-or-flight response and are very emotional,” says Christensen. “A colt and an adolescent have a lot of similarities so it’s fun to do a round pen demonstration and just kind of talk about those things. Our goal is to help them have better relationships, not necessarily to become cowboys or horse trainers. We just use horsemanship as a tool to get there.”

However, for the students who do catch horse fever, there is an advanced horsemanship program that allows them to have additional time with the horses, do off-campus rides, and participate in more advanced colt-training activities. The program creates extra incentive for good behavior because students must prove that they can be trusted with extended horse privileges before they are allowed to join the program.

Christensen may not have set out to become the director of Discovery Ranch’s equine program, but it’s clear that he is exactly where he’s meant to be—changing the lives of at-risk teenagers through his passion for teaching and training.

He says, “My favorite part about this job is the same as it is when training a horse: being able to take them from where they’re at to a better place.”

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