Using a Horse to Develop Recovery Skills
Soberspace participants were given a unique and exciting challenge in May of 2002. They were asked to teach a horse to kick a ball! So, what's this got to do with staying sober?!

The Soberspace adolescent recovery group is learning sobriety-strengthening skills in a barnyard, of all places! The group of recovering adolescents who participate in the weekly program have all been through an intensive outpatient program and have adequate skills in terms of understanding their disease. In order to use the skills taught in treatment, they face a new challenge involving horses each week. The task one week in May, teaching a 1,000 lb animal to kick a ball, was designed to teach the teens how to problem solve, think creatively, take risks, break a task down into small steps and to work as a team.

Soberspace participants had learned that, in order to teach a horse, each task needs to be broken down into small steps, much like when problem solving for themselves. The assignment read as follows: "You will be teaching the horses to kick a ball. Breaking the task down into several SMALL steps - how precisely are you going to do that?" The adolescents were given a week to think about it and were to come back with written steps, ready to demonstrate to the rest of the group. What followed was a process in which participants learned to break an unfamiliar task down. . .step- by-step. They had a chance to discover and experience what WORKED, what DIDN'T and WHY. A technique that worked with one horse, didn't necessarily work with the other. Some of the skills honed during this exercise included: 

          1. developing patience
          2. creative thinking
          3. perseverance
          4. empathy
          5. team work/cooperation
          6. discovering the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards and how
              that relates to their sobriety
          7. communication skills
          8. the components of a healthy relationship
          9. delegation (& acceptance) of responsibility
        10. the importance of repetition and consistency when learning something new
              and much, much more!

Did they have fun? Yep, lots of it. Could we have learned the same lessons in a more traditional group therapy setting? I doubt it. And, even if we did, the application of the lessons learned in the traditional group session would still be abstract, not concrete as they are now.

Does the horse kick a ball? Stoney (pictured to the side) can be let loose in the arena and when given the cue to 'kick ball' will approach the ball and send it up to ten feet or more. Okie (not pictured) has had some challenges overcoming a fear of the ball, understanding the cue and then completing the task as directed - not at all unlike their first attempts at recovery. The group didn't give up on him though and today he 'kicks ball' too.

Research is supportive of experiential forms of therapy. In Dr. Nancy Tobler's 194 meta-analysis of 143 school based curriculum, she has published the following statistics in terms of changes made as a result of these differential teaching styles: ** Non Interactive* Interactive

Edgar Dale's Cone of Learning (below) stresses that 90% of what you experience is retained as opposed to 5 - 15% of verbal or written material received. Dr. William Glasser's research on learning supports the same. A new report was undertaken by the Educational Testing Service with funding from the Milken Family Foundation (this testing organization is the same one that does the PSAT, SAT and GRE testing). The report is titled: How Teaching Matters: Bringing the Classroom Back Into Discussions of Teacher Quality. The report is available at: but basically states that: *Students whose teachers emphasize higher-order thinking skills and hands-on activities outperform their peers significantly. *Students who engage in hands-on learning on a weekly basis outperform those who engage in this manner of instruction on a monthly basis. *Students whose teachers conduct hands-on learning activities outperform their peers by 72% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science. In support of equine assisted psychotherapy, a new study published by Doug Mann of Journey Home in Colorado indicates that equine therapy is more effective that traditional, office-based therapy and is more cost efficient. That study and others can be found at: As new research regarding EAP is received, it's posted on the page.

So, in terms of teaching clients to stay sober -- teaching a horse to kick a ball has applications that go far beyond the arena. The ability to break a task down into small attainable steps, to work as a team, to be able to evaluate progress (or lack of it) and then to develop the strategies to correct ineffective methods, to be able to interpret the body language of not only yourself but of your team members and the horse, to be able to anticipate consequences, and celebrate the small victories as they occur all have far-reaching potential.

In fact, the clients developed "Kick Ball" as a cue for the horse and yet "Kick Ball" has become a word to symbolize the ability to overcome obstacles and develop new skills. Here in Soberspace we "Kick Ball" on a weekly basis! Why don't you join us? Linda Myers, MA, LICDC, LPC, Specialized Assessment & Counseling Services, Inc.

"To double your success rate, double your failure rate." (Tom Watson Sr., founder of IBM
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