Can Horses Help Offenders Process Destructive Emotions? Success In Siskiyou County Is Riding On It.
YREKA – James Lineberger drank too much for too long trying to quell his lifelong feelings of deep anxiety, and eventually landed in jail for domestic violence. Then into his life at the Siskiyou County Probation Department’s Day Reporting Center came Big Dar, a massive paint-colored draft horse. At first Big Dar was skittish and standoffish with Lineberger and wouldn’t come close, mirroring back the feelings Lineberger emitted. Though Lineberger had completed cognitive behavioral therapy classes as part of his probation, translating his new knowledge into feelings, long numbed by alcohol, had eluded him. The horse and man finally formed a bond when Lineberger learned to relax, control his emotional impulses and release his anxieties. “He has taught me a lot about patience,” said Lineberger as he softly stroked Big Dar’s muzzle. “They can feel what you’re feeling, and when you see that and understand what you’re putting out there you can put that straight into real life. You try to be more observant about what you’re putting out there.”
Siskiyou probationers in alcohol and drug treatment programs progress through a four-stage series of group therapy sessions, including parenting classes, stress management, relapse prevention, job readiness, family counseling, moral reconation therapy and aggression therapy. It culminates, for those who opt in, with the eight-week “experiential therapy” equine component, perhaps the only one operated through a DRC in the state. After using equine therapy successfully since 2008 to empower juveniles, in 2012 Probation Chief Todd Heie convinced the Siskiyou Community Corrections Partnership that it held promise for adults to reinforce behavioral therapy programs. Sheriff Jon Lopey, who was familiar with the Horses for Heroes veterans programs, said he quickly agreed. “To me, we’re just doing what works,” Lopey said. Siskiyou County, on the Oregon border, is one of California’s largest and most rural. The DRC has a traditional curriculum of cognitive behavioral therapies, but participants also learn organic gardening, raise eggs and rabbits for food banks, and collect and split firewood for the elderly on fixed incomes and those on the federal energy assistance program.
“This garden has changed my life,” said probationer Shawn Miller as he swept his arm toward bunches of kale and ripening tomatoes. “I’ve got a work ethic. I love working here and knowing I’m helping people.” The horse therapy program, however, is what turns on the light bulb for many participants. It is run by brother and sister duo Suzanne and Judd Pindell, who own Heal Therapy and employ therapist Steve Waggoner, who runs the group therapy programs. Instructors and horses are certified by the Professional Association of Horsemanship International. “It has taught me to let things go and get centered,” said Dennis, a drug and theft offender in the program. “Horses feed off your energy and if you’re not calm the horses get tense.”
It’s often said that horses know when a person is afraid, but this program shows that because they are prey animals they also can sense when a person is angry, impatient or otherwise out of sorts. Horses naturally will crowd the space of a timid person who can’t set boundaries, or back away from someone overly aggressive since a prey animal’s first instinct is to flee. Through the eight-week program offenders with a history of impulse control are being challenged to master their emotions. “To see a participant not react in anger and take that back to their families is a positive thing,” said Jennifer Villani, deputy chief probation officer. Counselors say that’s what makes the animals perfect for offenders in the late stages of cognitive behavioral therapy. Studies have shown that working with horses improves pro-social behaviors in some people, helps them access feelings to develop a sense of empathy and trust, and keeps them focused on the moment at hand.
“The horse is a prey animal, and there’s a big difference in temperament between predators and prey,” said Allison Giannini, a correctional deputy and program coordinator for the DRC. “Though our guys are predatory, they can develop empathy when they trust the animals. It helps them share more.” The three biggest challenges Siskiyou officials face are employment, housing and transportation across one of the state’s largest counties. In the past year 218 people have gone through DRC programs, and of those 60 percent successfully completed them. Of those, only 30 percent have reoffended, including technical violations of probation. Siskiyou County analyzed probation revocations of those who had participated in equine therapy and found that the numbers declined by nearly 40 percent, compared with a 6.6 percent decline for those who did not do the program. Felony re-arrests were halved.
James Lineberger now lives with his wife again. He says he wants to use his new insights into his behavior to help his son and develop a healthy relationship with his wife. After a half dozen stints in jail, he believes he is now on the right track, thanks to programs at the DRC. “This has been like a fresh beginning. Everyone is so supportive, and now I have job prospects. There are people in the system who care, especially here,” he said. “I can be thankful that things happened in my life because it got me to where I am now. This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”