In a corner of the 300-acre Children’s Farm Home campus in Corvallis, 13 horses cluster in stables. The ground is caked with winter mud as an earthy, aromatic odor drifts in the chilly air. Located at the end of a long, curving dirt road off Highway 20, these stables once served as a dairy-milking parlor years ago. In those days, the Children’s Farm Home was an orphanage and a real working farm.
Since 1998, however, Trillium Family Services has operated this expansive facility. The Farm Home provides 24-hour treatment for children struggling with mental health challenges such as depression, unsafe behaviors, and trauma.
Whereas their predecessors once carried riders around the farm for very different tasks, these horses are still working horses.
These horses work to heal.
“That time when children are working with the horses is specifically focused on their treatment goals as well,” said Kristen Atwater, horse program director for Trillium Family Services. “Learning to ride horses is secondary.”
Trillium Family Services’ equine-assisted therapy program at Children’s Farm Home uses horses as a tool to engage children in metal health treatment. It serves residential clients as well as clients who were referred by therapists.
“Typically what they’re being referred for is emotion regulation skills, anger management skills, and building healthier relationships,” Atwater said.
For example, a child could work on his or her relationship with a sibling. Each sibling would groom a different horse. A skills trainer would talk with them about how things are going as the children loosen mud from their horses’ coats with a curry comb. Sometimes the siblings might have to stop and switch horses.
“They have to communicate to each other, ‘This is where I left off in the grooming process, this is where I’d like you to start,’” Atwater said. “They can work on being respectful with each other and assertive with each other.”
Typically, a child comes in for a two-hour session once a week for at least three months. For residential clients, the program is part of the services that the campus offers. For outpatient clients, the program takes the Oregon Health Plan and referrals from therapists.
Most of the children treated by the program have never ridden a horse. They’re learning “Horses 101,” essentially—how to put a halter on for the first time and how to clean a horse’s hooves, among other tasks.
Unlike other pets, horses have the added challenge of sheer size.
“They can be kind of intimidating at times,” Atwater said. “In that sense, they do demand a little bit of respect. But their personalities are very open-minded and very quiet and gentle.”
Horses don’t judge, in other words.
“Horses don’t beg for attention, but they willingly give you what you ask for. They’re really a perfect medium in which to teach relationship building, communication, and body language,” commented Atwater. “They give you something to work with, but you do have to work for it a little bit.”
The children who ride them, meanwhile, often come from troubled pasts.
“The horses give them a real reaction to their actions,” Atwater said. “With the help of the skills trainer hopefully they learn to respond to the horse better and learn to respond in those frustrating situations better. That’s the ultimate goal.”
By Denise Ruttan