Equine Assisted Therapy Helps Struggling Teens Discover Themselves

Over 50 years ago (1966) Cumberland Heights opened its doors, offering tremendous respect and compassion for those suffering from alcoholism and addiction. The founders defied the popular notion, still prevalent at the time, that their patients were people of moral weakness.  Those of us old enough to remember those days, remember a harsh response to a patient sharing emotional pain. Something closer to, “Here’s a dime, buddy, tell it to someone who cares,” than to what we consider quality treatment today. The founders of Cumberland Heights saw this disease and all its accompanying damage differently, and instead, created a place of healing and sanctuary.

Fast forward to 2020 and Cumberland Heights is still putting the exceptional into play, this time with the creation of ARCH Academy, a specialized treatment center for adolescent males. Consistent with 1966 Cumberland Heights, the program was built with the latest understanding of optimal treatment for young men this age. Combining the latest research about the unique needs of young men and a respect for their inherent worth is the foundation of this program’s treatment model.

To follow suit, ARCH Academy created an equine program that brings the best of equine-assisted psychotherapy. In the past, horses were seen as one-dimensional creatures, useful for sports or labor. You still hear old schools of thought at times such as “Show them who is in control” or “Don’t let them know you’re afraid or they will hurt you”. We missed the individuality of horses; we did not see their intricate social-emotional internal lives and their relationship dynamics within their communities (aka: herds).  We made assumptions about how horses needed to be cared for and how to engage with them. Just like addicts in the midst of their addiction, equine behavior was viewed historically as a moral dilemma when it didn’t fit our social norms. This was a common view toward troubled adolescents in society at times. We did not understand that horses had needs similar to people, and their behavior was a form of communication. With a new knowledge and psychology, ARCH Academy’s horses, like the young men in the program, will be seen and heard. Communication in behavior as a language will be the gateway in understanding relationships with mutual respect and responsibility. In these relationships with the horses, clients are provided with ongoing opportunities to explore and make choices around their personal relationships with self and others.

The equine work at ARCH Academy involves the knowledge, respect and appreciation for the unique being of each horse, just as every patient in the program is seen as an individual with specific needs and challenges.

We understand how valuable community support is for those in treatment and recovery. The horses at ARCH Academy participate as valued members of that community. With guidance from staff to provide accurate and supportive understanding of the horse’s true nature, it is a tremendous way to duplicate, explore and re-decide the relational behaviors and beliefs that drive these young men in their life today. In the effort to understand the horse’s behaviors and communication, residents will begin to learn how they, in turn, communicate either by language or non-verbals. The staff’s efforts are to understand that communication so that interpersonal responses will be part of healing, rather than a continuation of communication breakdown. The ultimate goal is for these young men to become more self-aware and authentic.

There is an endless and magical world when people and horses really see and know each other. At ARCH Academy, we bring the goodness of equine work forward just as Cumberland Heights has always done in the addiction treatment field.

About The Horses

Blizzard came to us through the combined efforts of the Humane Society of Charlotte, TN and Rivers Edge Horse Rescue in Lyles, TN. After being rescued from a neglectful home, Blizzard was medically treated and then transported to Rivers Edge Horse Rescue. A new life at Rivers Edge was not without struggles for Blizzard. After spending most of his life moving from auction to auction all over the east coast, he lacked the social skills most horses develop in the herd. This made him a sensitive target for natural herd dynamics and left Blizzard feeling alone once again.

ARCH equine therapist Dede Beasley immediately thought of Jane McCalister at Rivers Edge when seeking out a horse for ARCH Academy. Jane recommended Blizzard right away. After meeting Blizzard and working with him, it was apparent he had received love and prior training at some point in his past, but this prior training was difficult to access due Blizzard’s anxiety. He was constantly trying to push and pull his way to the barn where he knew he would be fed and taken care of. After working with him for a few weeks, Blizzard began to trust again, and was able to access that previous training, making him the perfect fit for ARCH Academy. Once on campus he was able to quickly befriend our other horse AJ.

AJ came to us via Safe Harbor Sanctuary in Cottontown, TN. Safe Harbor was contacted by AJ’s previous owner for relocation. AJ was getting older and his previous owners wanted him to spend his last years in a place he would love. When AJ was younger, he worked as a western pleasure horse in rodeos. As his rodeo career went downhill, he was adopted, cared for, and loved by his previous owner for over 15 years. Once again, the stars aligned. Dede reached out to the rescue around the same time AJ’s loving owner was looking for a new home for him. AJ has adapted extremely well here at ARCH Academy and is now good friends with Blizzard. AJ’s previous owners love seeing photos of him at ARCH and hope to come out for a visit soon.

AJ and Blizzard are already so loved at ARCH Academy. Caring for the horses gives our teen boys a tremendous opportunity to discover themselves and practice trust, reliability and mindfulness.

Blog Authors:

Dede Beasley, M.Ed., is a licensed professional counselor and equine-assisted psychotherapist. She is the equine therapist for ARCH Academy.

Cole Szabo is a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor (LADAC I) and Admissions and Outreach Coordinator for ARCH Academy.

Conner Davidson is a Certified Peer Recovery Specialist (CPRS) and activities counselor at ARCH Academy.