Equine Therapy



Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Program at Bernalillo Academy

The Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Program (EAP) at Bernalillo Academy began in September 2012 in collaboration with ‘Equine Therapeutic Connections’ which is located in Albuquerque, NM.  Deborah Pierson, owner of Equine Therapeutic Connections, graduated from the University of New Mexico with an MBA. Horses have been a part of Deborah’s life since she was small and she decided to combine these two passions into working to help children with challenges and utilize her horses as research supports the positive outcomes this therapy provides children with various challenges.  She is certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) and leads her team of experts which include a licensed mental health care provider, an equine specialist and her wonderful horses.  The children at Bernalillo Academy participating in the program travel to Equine Therapeutic Connections once a week for an individual session with their special horse(s) and Deborah’s staff.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a unique, experiential, adjunct therapy that helps children of all ages and developmental levels improve communication, build relationships, develop focus and attention, increase self- confidence, improve problem-solving skills, and raise self-awareness.  Working with the horse(s) every week helps residents gain insight into horse behavior and how that may tie into their life.  It also promotes relationship building/bonding between child and horse. Once the child is able to make the connections and relationship with the horse, it is easy for them to transfer that to human relationships as well.  Children who are described as aggressive and oppositional come to the stables and show the EAP staff very different behavior when they encounter a 1,000-pound animal!

Some examples of this powerful intervention (all names changed for confidentiality):

“Johnny” is one of the residents who is participating in the EAP program. His diagnoses include Impulse Control Disorder, ADHD combined type, and Severe Mental Retardation. At Johnny’s first session, he had great difficulty focusing on anything for more than a few seconds. He was very distracted by all that he saw at the stables including horses, cats, goats, the outdoors, fences, trees, tiny rocks and, of course, “caca” in the arena sand! Needless to say, it was difficult for Johnny to pay attention to one horse.  By his fifth session, Johnny is walking into the arena, going to the grooming box, taking halter and rope and asking for assistance putting it on his horse. Not only is Johnny now able to lead his horse around the arena but he is also very aware of what is on the other end of his rope, and is looking back as he leads his horse to make sure the horse is following him.

Another resident, “Tim,” was at his third Equine Therapy session when his horse, became upset and agitated upon being separated from the herd, and whinnied loudly several times.  This frightened Tim and he watched as EAP staff led Sierra in tight circles to help distract and calm the horse. This event helped Tim move into a great discussion with EAP staff about his own coping skills, including deep breathing, and how both humans and horses need to engage in certain behaviors to calm down.

Our last example involves “Jose.” Jose is an 11-year-old child with chronic and major PTSD.   However, Jose became very involved with his horse from the first session, and also showed great independence and minimal fear in completing tasks with his horse right from the start.

In his fourth session, Jose was leading his horse around the arena and his horse stopped several times.

Each time Jose looked at the EAP staffs, which were at the other end of the arena, as though he was thinking about asking for help.  But Jose stayed with his horse, and stood very close as though he was communicating with his horse in some way.  When he returned with his horse to where the EAP staff was standing, Jose told staff that he didn’t ask for help because he and his horse “worked out a plan” together and that’s how he got the horse moving again.  This tied into a conversation on how he can work out a plan to continue moving toward his goals at Bernalillo Academy.

These are just some of the examples of the power of EAP and what happens when children interact with these magnificent animals. We are sure we will see more and more progress (and wonderful stories) as the residents from Bernalillo Academy continue their participation in the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Program.



Deborah D. Pierson, Owner, Equine Assisted Therapeutic Connections, Albuquerque NM