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Equine program helps reach troubled youth
July 28, 2011 Jerry Purvis   

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Ron Johns(right), director of Scotts Bluff County Corrections, and equine program director Steve Smith have had good success with using the equine program to reach troubled youth.

Since 2009, the Scotts Bluff County Juvenile Detention Facility has had great success with an equine program that helps troubled youth to sort out their feelings and behavior.

“We wanted to be more than just a locked, secure youth detention facility,” said Ron Johns, director of Scotts Bluff County Corrections. “We were looking at new avenues to work with the kids and decided on the equine program.”

Johns said that by performing tasks with the horses, youth give program directors insights into why they behave in certain ways.

“We were looking at different programs when I got an application from Steve Smith, who wanted to be a corrections officer,” John said. “He was also a horse trainer, so we decided to start the equine program and put him in charge of it.”

Smith said the program addresses attachment issues the kids might have. “We don’t get a true picture of what is going on in a kid’s mind just through the interview process. Essentially, we use the horses to facilitate their behavior. It’s called equine assisted learning.”

Alan Smith, a local psychologist uses the program for therapy with some of his juvenile patients. Often he can gain more information from one session with the horses than he can through several traditional sessions in his office.

“This is attachment-based therapy not just playing with horses,” Dr. Smith said. “There’s something natural between man and horse that addresses attachment, trust and security issues. Through working with the horses, the kids become more aware of their inner self and learn problem solving on their own.”

Basically, a juvenile is taken to the horse corral and given a task such as catching or haltering the horse. No other instructions are given, so the young person figures out for him or herself how to complete the task.

Steve Smith said many juveniles have learned patience through working with the horses. Through interaction with the animals, they come to understand why they get angry and how that applies to their interactions with other people.

“Working with the horses brings out honest emotions in the kids,” Johns said. “Later when we ask the kid why he thinks the horse reacted the way it did, it gets him to thinking. It’s not us pointing fingers and finding fault. The kid comes to recognize the problem on his own.”

Johns said they would like to expand the program to serve troubled youth throughout the community, not only those who are in the county’s juvenile detention facility. They are also getting entire families involved in the program to help open up lines of communication.

“A lot of the kids we get are from other counties,” Johns said. “One came here from Sarpy County at the recommendation of a judge who said they weren’t having success with reaching him. He stayed with us and went through the equine program and it was a big success for him. Now he’s enrolled in medical school in Florida.”

Johns said the program is making a name for itself as judges see the results in how the kids’ lives have been changed. “Kids really benefit from this program, but often we don’t have the kids with us for that long,” Smith said. “We try to concentrate as much as we can to give the kids some tools they can utilize down the road.”

Johns said the equine program isn’t a cure-all for every behavioral problem. However, he’s seen the meanest of kids respond and learn a lot from working with the animals.

“Horses and people have very similar social issues,” Johns said. “The fight or flight response is one of them. Horses are also social animals and like to be around each other.”
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