Six years ago, Wes and Sue Horton, LMFT were looking for a change. They found it at Ironwood, a residential treatment center and private, co-educational school for teens in Morrill, Maine.
With professional backgrounds in therapy and healthcare, the Hortons took over the facility adding more professional staff and revamping the program for families in crisis.
Ironwood concentrates on the behavioral, therapeutic and educational needs of up to 45 students aged 13 to 18 for a nine- to 12-month period. Teens are admitted for issues ranging from addiction, depression and anxiety to self-harm, oppositional defiance and ADHD.
“Self-esteem develops by being able to work through things,” said Sue Horton. “When parents see the transformation for the first time, there are tears of joy. They are seeing their children for who they knew them to be.”
With a horse barn, canine training, culinary and horticultural programs on 500 acres, teens who enter leave better than when they arrived, she said. Along with regular therapy sessions, they keep up with their studies, work the farm and cook the food they grow.
“Kids come here in a negative place and their education has been interrupted or is insufficient,” said Horton. “We try to turn that around and get them back on track educationally.”
The school has two campuses. The first two levels reside at the Frye campus where rules and structure strictly apply. The latter two stay at the Farm House where personal skills like honesty, responsibility and integrity are tackled. The goal is to work with the whole person, not just a portion of his/her personality. But, assessing a child’s needs starts at the academic level.
“We have a clear focus on academics,” said Head of School Molly Feeney. “Just filling out workbooks while you’re here isn’t springboarding you for a long-term future. The clear common thread is skill development.”
An integral part of that education incorporates animals. Both dogs and horses intuitively read a person’s emotional state. Essentially, the animal becomes the therapist. Angry, sad, or shy, they sense it. But, animals are a responsibility. Resident teens are expected to provide general care, feeding and medications.
“The kids are surprised they work so hard, but it doesn’t feel like work,” said Joy Baker, M.Ed., C.A.S., barn manager and riding instructor at Ironwood. “They learn responsibility and a work ethic. They gain confidence. They suddenly realize they didn’t know they could care so much about another being.”
Ronanne Haigh, Ironwood’s behavior specialist and dog trainer, agreed with Baker. She said in addition to confidence, children grow in tolerance, patience and leadership skills. Often, training a dog becomes a role reversal. Following the rules including consequences for their actions now get turned on the dog.
“A lot of kids come in with anger issues and don’t want anything to do with the animals,” said Haigh. “But over time, they soften up and it’s a first step to dealing with society in a relational aspect.”
Horton echoed those statements. “The animal becomes the conduit for learning and communication,” she said. “It’s a real, physical connection that feels safe.”
Animals of all kinds have been documented as therapeutic tools since the 17th century. But there are some who caution the use of them in therapy.
Molly Jenkins, research analyst and human-animal interaction specialist at American Humane, acknowledged that research is the predecessor to practice. But with animal therapy, the practice is outpacing the research and science needs to play a little “catch-up.”
“Some research says we don’t have the data,” said Jenkins. “But we’re showing it can be done. I believe there’s a bond we have with animals and it’s definitely powerful. After a traumatic situation, animals can have life-changing effects on both children and adults.”