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75 APRIL 2005
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animals and healing

Outlaw riders: Equine-facilitated therapy with juvenile capital offenders

Leslie Moreau

Youths who commit capital offenses often do so after facing years of failure, abuse, disrespect, and poor choices. The author discusses how equine-facilitated psychotherapy can aid in their healing and rehabilitation.

Gabriel*, the son of a Mexican drug lord, grew up deep in the South Texas Valley. Unable to read or write, Gabriel got his schooling by way of measuring drugs and shooting targets with a semi-automatic handgun. By age 13, he was his father’s chief deputy. His job: collections. At age 14, Gabriel went to talk to three men who owed his father money. In Gabriel’s words, the men “disrespected” him, so he did what any self-respecting drug deputy would do “he shot the men and left them for dead. One of the men lived and pressed charges for attempted murder. Meanwhile, Gabriel’s arrogance grew. He felt invincible. He went on to rape a young boy. When both crimes came to light, Gabriel’s attorney convinced him to plea-bargain sexual assault in exchange for dropping the attempted murder charge. This way, he would likely not receive adult time. Gabriel went along with this and received 4 years in state school. His regret? That he was labeled a sex offender. According to Gabriel, “murderer” carries much more clout.

The Cycle Begins
I tell the young men I work with, all capital offenders, that they did not come into the world with “capital offender” on their birth certificate. It is a process born out of years of experiencing failure, abuse, and disrespect. It also comes from years of making poor choices, along with the common practice of disregarding the rights and feelings of others (Yochelson & Samenow, 1993).

How an individual interacts with his or her world develops over time. By examining an individual’s developmental processes, it is possible to trace the continuum of emotional maturity, cognitive understanding, and psychosocial awareness (Santrock, 1997). Erik Erikson's (1950) theory of psychosocial development shows how each stage of development is built upon the success of the others in a logical, sequential manner. When considering the behavior and rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, it is necessary to pay close attention to how failure to master the tasks required of each stage sets in motion a pattern that results in future problems. Erikson's stages are as follows:

There are multiple variables that can either promote or inhibit the successful progression of developmental stages (Gessel, 1952). The child born with physical or cognitive limitations or who lives in an inadequate environment has more difficulty mastering these steps. Even when early stages are successful, the child's environmental deficiencies often catch up with him or her, making adjustments in school and later childhood activities brutally stressful. Children may resort to primitive coping mechanisms that only serve to alienate them further from more mature peers. The cycle of poor self esteem that leads to frustration, anger, and acting out has begun. Although the capital offenders I work with can remember aspects of growing up that were positive and even loving, by and large they have not experienced “much “normal” in their lives Rather, their developmental milestones are measured by how much dysfunction, abuse, or anger they can tolerate, and for how long. Consider the memories of this young capital offender:

I was slow. Reading was hard. Mom and Dad called me “estupido.” I believed it. They said I’d never amount to anything. I became the class clown and then joined a gang when I was 12. The gang accepted me. They became my family. – Emilio

Power and Control
Children make conscious and unconscious decisions from the beginning. Many of these decisions are based upon whether or not they feel loved and whether their needs are being satisfied. Decisions are also made in response to overwhelming impulses children may be incapable of ignoring. The unsatisfied child who experiences strong negative impulses will typically experiment by yielding to impulse, be it by lying, stealing, cheating, or talking incessantly in class. When the decision either satisfies a need or elicits attention from a caregiver, a child feels rewarded for acting impulsively. Incentive to repeat the behavior develops. Through repetition, the child quickly learns that these negative behaviors can be extremely gratifying.

Youths learn to ignore thoughts of controlling their impulses because lack of control can yield greater benefits and more fun. Risk-taking and excitement then become connected to the impulsive behavior, making impulsivity even more compelling. The youth becomes hedonistic, living only to satisfy his or her own desires, even when this inconveniences or hurts others. At the extreme, the youth seeks to hurt others to satisfy his or her impulses and narcissistic needs. Often, the more damaging and dangerous the activity, the more satisfying it is.

Power and control are usually the driving forces behind capital offenses or any impulsive, illegal, or dangerous act (Yochelson & Samenow, 1993). The powerless youth wants to feel strong and capable. The child who feels out of control seeks to control everything and everyone around him or her. The youth disregards legitimate options of control, such as finishing school, developing talents, talking to counselors working at a real job, or initiating personal change, as too awkward and slow. The youth wants immediate results. Stealing fighting and threatening bring immediate and impressive results. Weapons amplify the youth’s power and can eliminate opposition. Secrecy and arrogance provide control. Adopting an “I don’t care” attitude engenders a lack of conscience There is no guilt or remorse. The misguided youth may become a killer who feels ultimately powerful and in total control.

By the time young offenders reach the juvenile justice system, they have usually victimized many individuals. Aside from their adjudicating offense, these youth may have committed multiple robberies, assaults, weapons offenses, sexual offenses, and other murders for which they were never caught. It is not atypical for several more victims to be revealed during the course of treatment. Juveniles adjudicated for murder, particularly gang-related killings, often tell of other shootings where the victim’s fate is unknown. Some describe killings done “just for the thrill of it” and they remain at large for the crime:

I was 13 and trying to move up in my gang. My home-boys and me found this kid, a rival, by himself. I shot him, just to scare the others and get my recognition. I wanted everyone to be scared of me, think I was crazy. It worked. No one f---ed with me after that. I still don’t know the kid's name. – Warren

Is Rehabilitation Possible?
Regardless of the actual reason for the offense, the act does not occur in a vacuum. Years of practicing thinking errors, violating the rights and feelings of others, retreating into emotional cocoons, and wanting to die all tie into the final behavior. The question then becomes this: Can the youth be rehabilitated?

With provocative, intrusive, expansive, and intense therapy, the answer is usually, yes. Adjudicated youth in general, and capital offenders in particular, need to relearn how to think and, most important, how to feel. In Texas Youth Commission facilities, youth are put through resocialization training. This process is designed to help them learn about their life and crime cycles, thinking errors (out-of-control defense mechanisms where the well-being of others is compromised in the pursuit of emotional self-protection), and high-risk behaviors. They are encouraged to take responsibility for their actions and learn new ways of thinking and coping. It works. However, the process of self-discovery while locked up with 20 to 30 other violent offenders often remains elusive. Opening up too much places the youth at risk for victimization. And so the offender stores the new information until he is in a safer environment where vulnerability can be practiced with greater certainty and where it can be met with support, rather than with ridicule. One supportive and ridicule-free environment can be found in the alternative therapy I practice equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP).

Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy
Equine-facilitated psychotherapy involves teaching horsemanship to re-create, in part, the developmental tasks outlined by Erikson (1950): Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, and Identity vs. Identity Confusion. Getting to know and accept the horse, and being accepted by it, develops trust. Grooming, riding independently, and trotting all impact autonomy. Risk-taking, skill acquisition, and barn chores help the youth learn about initiative and practice industry. Gradually, the youth begins to see himself as someone who can accomplish positive things. The youth’s identity evolves from that of capital offender (bad kid) to that of rider, caregiver, and helper (good kid). In this evolution, the youth practices empathy and compassion” the most crucial elements of healing.

One of the most compelling aspects of EFP is the opportunity to form positive bonds and attachments. Attachment to a love object is at the root of successful development (Wagner & Fine, 1980). Adjudicated youth often refuse to believe such a thing is possible. They avoid attachments at all costs. But the horse is nonjudgmental. It will respond to care and attention with patience and cooperation. Attachment is not only possible in this nonthreatening relationship, but it is almost inevitable. Translating this process to human relationships, while difficult, becomes less impossible. Positive relationships finally begin to make sense.

The Benefits of Using Horses in Therapy
Equine-facilitated psychotherapy synthesizes the knowledge of several other therapies. It offers a chance to practice emerging skills in an arena where trust and patience are rewarded with valued relationships and competence. In this unregimented environment, youths can let down their guard. This gives the therapist an abundance of teachable moments, which are often unavailable in the more traditional group-therapy setting.

Specific areas to confront in EFP sessions include fear, anger, trust, compassion, and empathy. Fear and anger go hand in hand. The violent youth has learned to channel fear into anger. It makes him feel more powerful. But acting angry with a horse is a sure recipe for trouble. Horses are prey animals and so typically will mirror these strong emotions by trying to get away. By reflecting back to the youth what the horse’s body language is saying, the therapist provides the youth with the opportunity to remedy things right then and there. Following several minutes of talking about the “stupid horse who won’t listen,” the youth usually admits to being afraid. Knowing the youth’s background is crucial. The therapist can then relate the current experience to a previous one and problem-solve new ways of dealing with this present situation and emotion. For example, practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and visualization while remaining in the saddle allows the youth to challenge his fear, rather than suppressing it and later acting out. When the youth calms down and can refocus, a therapist can follow through by having him try again with help, and try again later independently.

Trust is a process that is built upon each time a youth visits the barn. The youth gets reacquainted with the horse or is introduced to a new one. Those with skills help those without. Those who are scared pet and feed and groom and talk about their fear of being out of control. Eventually they ride. Compassion and empathy are taught in each aspect of horsemanship:

If the experience is to be successful, the therapist must know the young people and understand their triggers and capabilities for acting out. This is a crucial prerequisite for participation. There should also be a lot of assistance. Halfway-house staff members accompany me to help with “crowd control,” and at least one seasoned horse person/riding instructor assists in the horsemanship part of the experience. Safety for all participating, including the horses, is the first priority.

An 8-Week Program

The following is a synopsis of an 8-week EFP program designed specifically to impact the main issues surrounding the developmental deficits youth offenders show. The program is based on Erikson's developmental stages.

Sessions 1 and 2 (Trust vs. mistrust): In these sessions, trust and mistrust are looked at in terms of self, others, and surroundings. The first session includes discussing goals and setting up rules. Typically goals focus on trust–trusting oneself, the horse, the therapist, and the experience. We also address fear and anger issues and discuss how we will practice new coping skills while working with the horse. Rules are based on respect for oneself, the horse, and others, with consequences for disrespect clearly defined. I introduce grooming, and the youths are encouraged to talk to their horses and relate to them on a personal level. This is built upon in the following session when the capital offenders ride for the first time. Trust is emphasized through working on a lead or lunge line, and on “trust walks,” where youths walk with their eyes closed, counting hoof beats and working to help one another. Coming to terms with fear is a major focus in these sessions.

Sessions 3 and 4 (Autonomy vs. shame and doubt): This second stage is revisited by allowing the youths to get their own equipment and get the horse ready with little or no assistance. Power and control are addressed through taking turns and riding solo. Youths” decreased fear often translates into inappropriate risk-taking such as increasing speed and attempting to canter the horse before they can even walk consistently Learning how to communicate and develop cooperation with the horse instead of trying to overpower it has to be discussed and learned.

Sessions 5 and 6 (Initiative vs. guilt): These sessions involve the integration of knowledge and activity. Youths do maintain some guilt about their crimes “often a great deal. Their choice is to let it consume them, or use it for growth. Taking the initiative, therefore, means choosing to move on, trying different things, and learning from one’s mistakes.

Session 7 (Industry vs. inferiority): Industry versus Inferiority involves the act of doing until it is done right. Feeling inferior is part of riding: the horse is bigger and stronger and others ride better. Youths are encouraged to persevere until they discover and overcome whatever obstacle it is that is causing the inferior feelings. Giving unconditionally is also part of industry and is practiced when caring for the horse.

Session 8 (Identity vs. identity confusion): After many weeks of work, the youths finally see that they have accomplished a great deal. Not only have they gained new skills, but they also know more about themselves. This usually means liking themselves more and accepting that they can be good people. In other words, they gain a positive identity.

Finding Happy Trails
The one place of sanity in Gabriel’s life was his grandfather’s farm. There, he learned to ride and care for horses. His reintroduction to horsemanship while at the halfway house brought back long-buried memories of happiness and safety.

No chore was too menial or task too difficult for Gabriel. He helped the other boys groom and tack their horses. He warned anyone who got too rough. By breaking through his barrier of toughness, Gabriel was finally able to feel empathy for his victims. He cried long and hard, feeling the guilt and remorse he had denied for 5 years. Gabriel’s confidence and compassion grew with each session. He talked of getting acreage and a couple of horses and thought farrier school might be a good thing. Gabriel has been gone for a while, but last I heard, he had his land and his horses and a good job.

Happy endings such as this come about through hard work and a willingness to persevere. Were it not for the horses, Gabriel might not ever have experienced victim empathy. Still, one must approach this intervention with caution. Not all offenders can benefit from EFP; some simply cannot tolerate the intimacy experienced between horse and rider. But for most, there is a tremendous amount to gain. EFP takes youths out of their “boxes” and into a realm where everything is new. There is time to play and experiment, try new behaviors, and get instant rewards and consequences. Few experiences can achieve this and be fun. Youths can work hard, relax their defenses, be real, get dirty, and know they are a part of something special” a worthy goal for any therapeutic intervention.


Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity. Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Gessei, A. (1952). Developmental pediatrics. In Elizabeth B. Hurlock (Ed.), Developmental psychology (pp. 1–36). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hurlock, E. B. (1968). Developmental psychology (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Newman, B. M.,& Newman, P.R. (1987). Development through life: A Psychosocial approach (4th ed.). Chicago: Dorsey Press.

Santrock, J. W (1997). Life-span development. New York: International Universities Press.

Solomon, P., & Patch, v D. (1974). Handbook of psychiatry Los Altos, CA: Lange Medical Publications.

Wagner, H. W, & Fine, H. J. (1980). Object relations and its clinical implications. Psychoanalytic Review 67(3), 23 1–247.

Yochelson, S., & Samenow, S. E. (1993). The criminal personality. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.

This feature: Moreau, L. (2001) Outlaw Riders: Equine-facilitated therapy with juvenile capital offenders. Reaching Today's Youth, Vol.5 issue 2. 27-30

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