As my long-time foster mentor says, attachment disorders are the least understood behavioral problem in the fostering and adoptive world. The constant need for control by these kids, combined with their immediate need to push adults away once they have control creates difficult emotional settings. It can also create explosive chaos in homes. Caregivers are baffled by the behavior and often feel at a loss as to what to do about it. Other children in the home can get caught in the constant turmoil, and the result can be a sad degradation of all the relationships affected.

Since our adoptive daughter came home from the hospital directly to us, we really did not think an attachment disorder would occur. We fostered her for her first 18 months and then adopted her. I had a lot to learn yet about primal wounding, cellular memory of prenatal traumatic events, and the like. When she was diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder, or RAD, I was shocked. It did totally describe what I was seeing in her, and what we were dealing with, but the biggest question still had no answers: What do we do about RAD?

A good friend of mine, De-Anna Lea, is dual certified through a board as both an Equine Facilitated Learning Specialist and an Equine Professional through Equine Facilitated Wellness Canada. We advocated for our daughter to start working with De-Anna, who is extremely knowledgeable in both RAD and other special needs. I can see the results of their work together, and I recently sat down with De-Anna to talk about what equine therapy really is and why it works so well for kids with RAD.

I asked De-Anna to describe equine therapy. She said the following: “It is having the horse create a safe space—a calm, nonjudgmental environment where the child can be themselves. This becomes a safe place for attachments to form. Equine therapy also helps to teach empathy and the recognition of empathy. Children with RAD need to be the extreme alpha, and they feel the need to control everything in their environment. As soon as they have control of the caregiver, they push them away. Kids are unable to push a horse around, as horses do not respond with an emotional reaction like humans do. Horses do not react emotionally to these kids, although that is nearly impossible for a caregiver. Horses can show discomfort, distress, relaxation, and enjoyment, but it isn’t as complex as trying to read body language and tone in humans. Kids pick up on the fact that people don’t always say what they mean, that body language and tone don’t always line up, and that humans are good at hiding what they are feeling. Horses are not; they show what they are feeling in much simpler terms. The lazy swishing of a tail and a sigh, the pinning of ears and lifting of a leg so as to kick are much simpler, clearer signs of what is happening. Horses are unable to mask true feelings and show us with their actions what is going on. This is less vulnerable to watch for a child than a human face. As the child progresses through therapy, they can start to use the tools they have learned in their human interactions. The worker, or therapist, can work with the child on how to tell what the horse is feeling: what does he need? How do we take care of him? These skills build empathy and can be directly applied in the child’s other relationships in life. If the child can build an attachment with the horse, the horse will ask nothing back in return—again, a safe place for a child to start working on attachment-building skills without the fear of emotional hurt. If a child can build an attachment to the animal, the child can explore beginning to build an attachment with a caregiver. This is all done in baby steps, nothing big or flashy. At an appropriate point, the therapist may start incorporating the caregiver into the therapy sessions. Because horses are physically big, the kids need direction and help to work with them. The caregiver or therapist is the one in control at all times and the one making the decisions. “I am the one that knows,” which means the child can rely on an adult to help him or her with this large animal. This is beautiful, really. The hierarchy is restored; the child can relax and be in the dependent role where they can be cared for. So often in RAD children, the child simply will not allow the caregiver to care for the child. Equine therapy sets the perfect base for starting to allow this to happen.”

For our daughter, horses have literally been a miracle. At times, I felt that horses are the only thing that makes her happy. My heart is often heavy for the weight she seems to carry, and it can be hard to bridge the gap. Horses have been the one thing that has helped. When she works with De-Anna, De-Anna asks her to look at her horse and tell her what she thinks he is feeling. Relaxed, tired (after all, he is an old boy), or sore when he’s stepped on a large rock and stumbled. De-Anna often tells a story about a recent situation, but where the horse is the main character, not the child. Then she and my daughter can talk about feelings and what to do, in a safe way, because the focus is not on her or her behavior. De-Anna may give options (ride down the road, or in the field, for example), but she is ultimately in control. Sometimes they watch the herd and decide who is in charge, how we can tell, and what all the horses are telling us about their environment. De-Anna always ends with taking off the tack together and putting it away properly. She asks my daughter how we can say thank you to Copper for the ride—brushing, a nice, long scratch in his favorite place, some oats, a braid in the tail, just time together. It is really quite beautiful.

I asked De-Anna what she likes most about working with kids with RAD. She said when the kids build the courage to try something new. That might be getting on a horse, leading a horse, or just being open to being vulnerable in a new situation. De-Anna and I both share a love of seeing the kids start to point out their observations of what they see in the horses. This is the proof that they are getting it, that they are seeing it, that they are recognizing the feelings of the animal with them. That gives me hope for the other relationships around them. I try to ride one a day week with each of my children, even if it is just lazily around the field on a hot afternoon. Recently, my daughter started telling me about all the things she was seeing in my nervous, green-broke gelding. My heart was singing; she’s getting it. I feel so blessed to have the beautiful, kind horses we have for these beautiful, growing children to love.