COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — To look at Abbie was to look at a shattered child who wanted only to curl up and fade away. This 10-year-old victim of sexual abuse rarely smiled. Too often, she'd be hunched over into a sad, withdrawn shell.
"She had no confidence whatsoever," said child therapist Trisha Moore. "She had a lot of anxiety and depression."
At school, Abbie was placed in special education classes because her social and emotional skills were lacking.
Moore had been working with Abbie for several months, but didn't feel they were making progress. When summer began, Moore tried another route--a horses-as-therapy program run by the Pikes Peak Mental Health Center and Equine Approach, a local therapeutic riding center. Moore felt the equine program might help the girl build some self-confidence.
"That's all I was hoping to get out of it," Moore says.
Abbie learned to carefully groom horses twice her size, to read their body language, to approach them gently and treat them tenderly. After four weeks, Moore went to the arena at Penrose Stadium to see how Abbie was progressing.
"I found myself standing there open-mouthed saying: 'This is not the same little girl,' " she said.
Abbie was laughing and interacting with the other children.
"She couldn't wait to show me what she had learned," Moore said.
The next time Abbie visited Moore's office, she was smiling and eager to talk about her experiences in the horse program. More important, she was showing a willingness to be more assertive.
"There were no other changes in her life to account for this but this program," Moore said.
It's quite a testament to a program that started without fanfare four years ago, and has, until this year, operated only in the summer at Penrose Stadium.
The program's goal is to help patients shattered by abuse, neglect or other trauma. Learning the concepts of horsemanship--respect, communication and trust--helps participants, most of them children, apply the same skills in their personal relationships, says program coordinator Dave Rudin.
The young children, and even a few teens and adults who participate in the program, get a self-esteem boost by experiencing something new and meeting a challenge.
Because the program can serve only four or five patients at a time and has operated only part of the year, it can't reach everyone who could benefit from it. That may change as the program becomes a year-round clinic this winter.
Program operators are still trying to learn how to better judge people who will succeed in the program and who won't, Rudin says. Working with horses is not for everyone, whether it's a child or adult, he says.
Still, demand is growing for equine encounters among Pikes Peak Mental Health Center therapists who have seen their clients progress, Rudin says. And no wonder: Therapists say the program helps bridge the gap between them and their troubled patients.
Patients still spend time with therapists in the mental health center offices, but it is in the dusty arena and barns, far from the traditional setting, where the budding equestrians gain the confidence that eventually helps them deal with their pain, Moore says.
The change in setting may have helped Abbie, who is now enrolled in the fall session, continuing to learn about horses and herself. And it may be what has helped another Moore patient, 9-year-old Arthur, whose mother died after a long illness.
Like Abbie, Arthur was a quiet, withdrawn child. Both his teacher and therapist were frustrated because Arthur rarely attempted anything, from school work to riding his bicycle, because he was afraid he couldn't be perfect. Moore was worried he would eventually sink into depression. "Therapeutically I was about at my wit's end," she says.
So Moore decided to try the equine program and had to practically order him to go because he was reluctant to try something new.
Weeks later, he is in the arena, guiding another child through an exercise. He stands on the back of a horse, arms spread wide in a circus performer's stance and takes his turn riding the slow-moving mount through a minor obstacle course. A smile spreads across his face as each task is completed, reinforced with plenty of praise from the instructors.
The program's effect on Arthur can be evaluated at the end of a session, when he speaks in a clear, strong voice and says, "I feel like a '10' because I had fun and I learned something today."
Success in equine therapy doesn't always manifest itself so dramatically. Sometimes, it's measured in small increments--a gentle voice instead of a shout, a small task completed, a show of patience instead of impulse.
But Arthur has gone beyond all expectations.
"His teacher says she has never seen such changes in a student."
The Pikes Peak Mental Health Center's Web address is http://www.ppmhc.org.