Animal-Assisted Therapy
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A Girl and Her Horse: The New Therapy for Troubled Teens

By Jane St. Clair

There is a long tradition in literature and film of focusing on a teenage girl’s deep devotion to a horse or dog. There has always been something special about the relationship between a girl on the verge of womanhood and such animals.

Psychologists who specialize in adolescents tell us that the early teen years are a time of plummeting self-esteem and alienation for young girls. Taking care of animals is a natural way to help them connect with the world around them.

Benefits of Working with Animals

By caring for a horse or dog, adolescents learn to nurture and care for others, and to form bonds beyond themselves. The rhythmic and repetitive motion of a horse’s gait can also be calming and healing for teens suffering from depression and anxiety.

Canine and equine therapies are ideal for girls who are struggling through their teen years and facing challenges such as drug or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, attachment and bonding issues, low self-esteem, defiance of authority, extreme moodiness and depression. Many girls who “shut down” during traditional talk therapy in office settings open up emotionally when they work with animals.

Animals cannot lie or manipulate, and only respond directly and emotionally to the way you treat them. If your emotions and mindsets are positive, the horse you are riding will sense that and work with you more easily. If you bother to spend time with a dog, the animal will look forward to your time with it and reward your caring with honest affection, playfulness and loyalty.

Animal Therapy at Residential Boarding School

Copper Canyon Academy, an all-girls therapeutic boarding school in Rimrock, Ariz., has been helping troubled teenage girls for many years. A key component of its program is animal therapy.

Each girl learns to ride and care for a horse, and studies horse anatomy and safety. Girls can also choose to work with dogs. As they began to love and trust their animal friends, troubled teens often drop their former attitudes of hostility, defiance and alienation.

The staff of professionals at Copper Canyon designs an individual academic and therapeutic program for each student. Each girl first undergoes psychological and academic testing to diagnose any underlying problems such as depression, Attention Deficit Disorder and other mental disorders or learning disabilities.

Excelling in Academics

By working on an academic program specifically designed to her unique learning style, a Copper Canyon Academy girl can become a successful student, often for the first time, and can even find herself excited about learning.

The single-sex atmosphere takes away some of the enormous social pressure that many teenagers feel to look and act a certain way. All of the classes are directed toward girls, making it more likely for students to succeed in traditional male subjects such as math and science.

Copper Canyon girls follow a college preparatory curriculum accredited by the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. Many of the school’s graduates have gone on to be accepted by colleges and universities. They often enter college better prepared for campus life because they have had a boarding school experience. They may have much more self-knowledge than most people their age because they have undergone professional counseling and identified their personal values and goals.

Girls at Copper Canyon live with their counselors on a 24-hour basis, but they also have individual and group counseling sessions several times a week. Family involvement is a key component of the program, as parents and siblings participate with students in family therapy sessions and workshops.

Copper Canyon Academy enrolls girls ages 13 to 17 years old on a year-round basis. The boarding school has a complete secondary school program, but most students do not remain there for four years. Once their counselors have determined that they are ready to go home, graduates enter after-care programs to ensure that the positive gains they made at Copper Canyon will remain with them permanently.

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