The findings included brief descriptions and definitions of each theme and quotes from the transcripts that illustrated and exemplified them. First, we present the adolescents’ description of their life experiences in their own words. Then we illustrate the theme of the horse–adolescent relationship and the three basic needs as defined by SDT that emerged from the data: competence, autonomy, and relationship with the horse. Finally, we discuss THR’s influence on the personal changes described by the adolescents.
The participants’ presentation of their past and current difficulties
I've been through many educational institutions in my life . . .
We begin by introducing the subjective self-presentation of the participants and their personal histories. Since the adolescents who participated in the study experienced social exclusion throughout their lives, we sought to make their voices heard and enable them to define and introduce themselves in their own words. We focus here on the main difficulties shared by the participants. More than 15 participants reported histories of frequently moving between schools and residential care facilities:
I’ve been in three residential care facilities . . . and at one boarding school before that.
Most of the religious adolescents had entered residential care at their parents’ request or following the recommendations of members of their extended families, friends, or community members after not fitting into other schools. The adolescents from juvenile justice facilities were there due to court or social welfare orders, as mentioned above.
Most of the adolescents shared a lack of a sense of belonging and a strong sense of social exclusion. These feelings stemmed from their experiences of being from immigrant families, failing to integrate into schools, moving frequently, lacking acceptance in religious society, feeling different, and more:
I wasn’t like the other kids there. In terms of behavior . . . how I dressed, my appearance . . . They liked to go and play . . . with their friends at that youth center, and I liked to smoke and drink and go out with kids from another settlement.
Some of the interviewees spoke of being deprived, abusing drugs and alcohol, and engaging in theft and violence:
Before I entered the rehab framework, I was on the streets . . . I took drugs from age eleven.
Some mentioned their age-inappropriate responsibilities or experiences:
From age eight . . . I worked in gardening. I would clean stairwells [in apartment buildings]. I didn’t want to ask my parents for anything. I didn’t want to need anyone or ask for money.
At age thirteen, I would hang around with people aged seventeen, eighteen, twenty-nine, or thirty. Let’s just say that a thirteen-year-old kid shouldn’t have been hanging around with them.
Others described the negative influence of their neighborhoods:
I can tell you that in my neighborhood, everyone who was with me, people in their twenties and thirties, they’re all in prison now.
It’s the neighborhood . . . I went through things there that I shouldn’t have gone through . . .
The above excerpts highlight a variety of difficulties experienced by the adolescent participants in our study, who revealed a series of past and present struggles and challenges, such as frequent moves between schools, a lack of a sense of belonging, social exclusion, criminal offenses, drug abuse, and age-inappropriate responsibilities. The participants’ past challenges can shed light on THR’s contribution to their present ability to cope.
Relationship with the horse
The relationship with the horse was the most dominant aspect of the adolescents’ THR experience. We had not expected this aspect to comprise such a significant element of their experience. As we analyzed this theme, as mentioned above, SDT emerged from the data. Accordingly, we present this theme through the three basic needs emphasized in this theory: competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Sense of competence: I did want to give up and didn’t allow myself to . . .
The need for competence reflects human beings’ desire to effectively master their environment and experience a sense of competence within it . Almost all the interviewees mentioned their improved sense of competence following their THR experience. They attributed this sense to having learned how to ride horses successfully and how to be patient, having undergone a long process that required perseverance, and having made progress and acquired skills in riding, the fruits of their labor. Some reported that their relationships with the horses and the processes they underwent increased their sense of competence and mastery. One spoke of the horse’s strength and its contribution to the confidence and ability involved in horseback riding:
Sure, once you get on a horse and learn how to control it you realize, wow! The first time you get on a horse, you don’t understand how people do things with it . . . it increases your self-confidence and sense of self-worth . . . you see that you’re controlling such a powerful animal and the more you learn, the more you understand its power and its gentleness. You learn about yourself.
Participants spoke of the experience of not giving up on themselves. They described the sense of competence that emerges from persevering. They also mentioned hard work, challenges, and responsibility as meaningful factors that had significant impact on their sense of competence:
. . . the path to success is to fall a few times and not either to succeed or to fall . . . with horses you have a thousand failures and occasionally a small success. Most of the time, it’s failures and occasionally you have such a small success, and it fills you with happiness.
Another issue related to participants’ sense of competence is the ability to face and overcome their fears. One of the participants described his inner struggle with his fear of the horse and the satisfaction of mastering it. Another spoke of overcoming the trauma he had experienced after falling from the horse and how this experience had contributed to his sense of competence:
At the farm, I fell. A horse threw me. I went to the hospital, got X-rays. Then I was afraid to mount the horse. I didn’t want to do it anymore. So, for about six months, I . . . got on for a few minutes, my hands shaking and said “no, not interested,” that’s it. I would always try and then get nervous when I suddenly remembered what had happened to me. Until I got to my horse, Donatello. I reached out to him and trusted him. I don’t know why. I had a connection with this horse. In the end, he helped me . . . I don’t know how. Today . . . with the help of the horse I . . . [can] go in, hug him, kiss him . . . I do everything alone. I don’t need anyone to be with me . . .
To sum up, we can see that the participants’ sense of competence increased thanks to their undergoing diverse positive experiences, persevering, experiencing stability, gaining a sense of control over the horses, and overcoming their fears. The next theme highlights the adolescents’ universal need for autonomy and the special meaning of autonomy in the context of the relationship with the horse.
Autonomy: I like to do things when I want to, not because someone is forcing me to.
The need for autonomy is satisfied when an individual experiences choice and volition in his actions and perceives himself as the origin of his actions. Autonomous actions are those that are self-endorsed and congruent with one’s values and interests . Our participants felt and expressed their need to achieve autonomy, freedom, and independence as part of their maturation process. For example, some of them described with great appreciation the freedom of choice the residential care framework had given them. Some talked about their encounter with authority in general as an experience that had challenged their autonomy and made them fight for their independence. In the context of THR, some participants also emphasized their perception of free choice:
If you don't come [to THR] for a while, they will kick you off of the farm. But even here [at the farm], let’s say I have a choice. If I don’t want to ride today, I won’t ride. There was a time when I didn’t want to ride, and then I saw how everyone was progressing, and I said well, I’ll try. Slowly, slowly you evolve and progress. You know? This is what I have wanted all my life. I wanted my independence.
The next excerpt shows specifically how the relationship with the horse affected the need for autonomy and demonstrates how this relationship clarified for participants the boundaries of their autonomy and the meaning of autonomy in a relational, intersubjective context.
It’s . . . easiest to give up and say it doesn’t depend on me, it depends on the horse, the horse decides. And what it mainly taught me is that many things depend on me too. We work together . . . I started looking for the gray areas in riding . . . like the difference between pulling too hard or too weakly to get the [desired] action and doing it exactly right . . .
A sense of freedom and choice are part of autonomy. The participant quoted in the last excerpt described the horse as an extrinsic entity that had the power to decide and take control when he attempted the jumping exercise with it. In the context of the relationship with the horse, some of the participants discovered the boundaries of their own autonomy and became more sensitive to their horses. As the following excerpt reveals, when the rider relinquishes control, the horse begins to cooperate, and the resulting mutual trust can bring success.
Once, there was a competition that I trained for a lot and . . . I was supposed to do jumps . . . I was the only one from the team who did jumps, and I was very excited. And I was last. Everyone was finished, everyone was sitting and then I came in with the horse . . . I was very, very stressed and I had done these obstacles with the horse dozens of times. Really. I knew every obstacle and where everything was, and nothing should have surprised me. Because I was stressed . . . I completely ignored the horse and was only focused on myself and . . . I got to the obstacle and the horse didn’t jump and I was so frustrated and started cursing . . . I really started getting upset and then they told me to get off the horse. I dismounted, and I was frustrated and blamed the horse and said, “he’s having a bad day” and . . . then a week later I came, and the horse was the same horse, and everything was the same and I realized how much my stress had affected those subtleties.
To conclude, the subtheme of autonomy revealed the universal need of our adolescent participants for autonomy and the sublimation of that need within their relationships with the horses. They had a unique opportunity to let go of their need for mastery in their relationships with the horses, which were free of power relations. Doing so helped them to be more sensitive to the horses, cooperate with them, and progress.
Relatedness: Riding is a job you do together with the horse.
The need for relatedness is associated with social belonging. Relatedness is satisfaction derived from a sense of connectedness with others, caring for others, and being cared for by them. According to SDT, the need for relatedness stems from the desire to feel connected to others . We found that, in some cases, there was a difference between the way in which participants spoke of the relationship with the horses and the way in which they spoke about their relationships with people. Most of them felt a lack of relatedness and reported feeling alienated and having difficulty forming close relationships and connections with others, such as staff members or other boys.
Nonetheless, we were able to identify the central, fundamental need for trust when the participants spoke about their meaningful relationships with the horses. One talked about the different ways in which he allowed himself to connect with his horse, despite his difficulties in connecting with people:
It annoyed me that they took Shrek [his horse] . . . and didn’t tell me ahead of time. I was suddenly informed two weeks later, as if they had just taken him. It was very annoying. It’s your horse, yours. So, with the new horse, I was devoted, I gave him all my love, all my warmth. But today I know that even if I leave someone, even though I don’t know what will happen, I know that . . . I’ll soon take everything he says with a grain of salt. I'm very emotionally closed in that way. I also have a hard time with love.
Some participants talked about nonverbal communication with the horse and the sense that there was a mutual understanding between them:
I felt as if she [the horse] felt safe with me because she was insecure and used to being scared and hadn’t found a leader and was part of the herd . . . even today she loves me when I come to say hello. What I learned is that she’s an animal . . . she can’t talk . . . I have to know when something hurts her, when she doesn’t want to do something, when she feels good, what she likes.
This participant also spoke of the process of relinquishing control after establishing a connection with the horse and learning to trust it:
. . . Meanwhile, I made all sorts of decisions. I think the most significant thing . . . was . . . the jumps. There . . . you do something beyond [the usual]... it requires a lot of precision and . . . trust in the horse and suddenly you’re in situations . . . where you know that you’re not in control . . . that the work here is both the horse’s and yours . . . and at the moment of the jump you let go of everything and let her do the work. I learned to trust.
Most of the participants talked about the horse as a symbolic projection of a human being, as in the following excerpt:
Yes, sometimes . . . like people, horses can get up on the wrong side . . . and then you go to the horse and immediately notice that he’s a little sad or nervous. And then you need to know what to do. And how to communicate with it and how to calm it down if necessary . . . or how to say to it, OK, get up, wake yourself up.
Some participants also felt that the relationship with the horse made them more sensitive to others, as this excerpt demonstrates:
Riding . . . is working together, working with the animal, understanding it and being considerate of it. For example, it’s having a hard day and you have to understand it and say, OK, don’t make such an effort. And you’ll still do it. And that is teamwork. You have to take care of the animal after you ride, wash it. It’s like a part of you . . . The work with the horse helps you show more emotions, notice things. The horse may be limping a bit or something like that and sometimes you can’t see it, but you understand it doesn’t feel well. You learn to look from the outside, to check all kinds of things to make sure they’re OK. It taught me a great deal . . . to invest in relationships . . .
The influence of THR
Most of the adolescents described the THR as a positive experience. Some of them experienced excitement and expectation before coming to the farm. They spoke about enjoying the experience, which helped them stay despite the obstacles and challenges they faced all week long at the residential care facility.
The adolescents emphasized riding and horse care as enjoyable activities. Some referred to the relaxing effect of riding as exercise or as a way to release aggression and energy. This is an important part of THR, especially for at-risk adolescents, who may exhibit physical and verbal violence at the beginning of the therapeutic process. Several of them felt that riding had a positive impact on their functioning for the rest of the day and even the next day. One reported the following:
It’s a little hard to see the impact of riding and understand what it is affecting me, but I do understand and know it only does me good. It makes me more energetic at school and it's a place to come and let go. It’s not like you get up in the morning and go study. You get up, come to the farm, to a place that’s more comfortable, somehow easier for me and more … I don’t know how to explain … and then I go back to boarding school and feel much better there.
The participants also spoke of their effort to cope with their low frustration threshold while riding. One of them explained:
Sometimes it’s a bummer here, sometimes not. But have to cope with it if I want to stay here. So it’s nice here actually. There are moments, but okay, when you don’t succeed at something, you need to work collaboratively. For the horse it’s not like that, so it’s frustrating, and I have a low frustration threshold, so I get upset quickly, and then I have to deal with it . . . here I have to go on. In other places, if I was feeling badly, I would leave. Here I have to make an effort. Because I like it. Yes, I like it, even if there are frustrations . . .
Through riding, the adolescents experienced a process that required perseverance and long-term investment. At some point, they began to see the fruits of their hard work; their riding techniques improved, and they gained the horses’ trust. This persistent investment in riding influenced them to invest more consistently in other activities (e.g., other sports) and invest more in their studies. As one participant told us:
After the farm, I have a math lesson and the day is much harder, but even though it ends in the evening, it’s an easier day for me. That’s what I feel. It’s good for me. It helps me let things out, you know, not sitting all day … I don’t know if I could do it.
Their persistence in the riding process helped them learn how to cope with failures and enjoy success, as one of the participants explained:
When the road to success involves falling several times and either succeeding or falling, when you’re with horses you have thousands of failures every day and once in a while a small success. Most of the time, it’s failures and occasionally you have one of those small successes and it fills you with happiness.
The entire process the adolescents underwent through therapeutic riding intervention, the relationship with the horses, their caring for them, and their progress with riding helped them to be more patient in general. Moreover, their experience with the horses taught them about the mutual give-and-take nature of all relationships. In this regard, one participant reported the following:
The farm taught me something about relationships, that you should always be patient and if you take something, you should always give something, and you don’t necessarily have to receive something . . . but you should never go halfway. Because, for example, the horse gives you something and he thinks you’re with him, then don’t ever just clean his body and not his legs.
Only three adolescents described their experiences as negative. It seems that each one of them had a different reason to feel that way about the THR, for example a lack of connection to the horse or a lack of interest in the riding style taught at the farm. With the exception of these three adolescents, for the rest of the participants, THR was a meaningful and constituent experience, as the finding demonstrate in detail.