One of the most impactful stories of how horses can reach through to children in times of severe depression is the story of Matt and Jubee.
Matt had just turned 16. Tall and lanky with dirty blonde hair (and the hint of facial hair that he was exceedingly proud of), Matt was your average teenage boy. He made friends easily, loved being outdoors, and was always trying to make someone laugh. To celebrate his license and his new car, he and three of his friends hopped in his ‘new’ 1995 Volkswagen and reveled in their new-found sense of identity and freedom. They tore out of the driveway hooping and hollering—excited for all the places they could go. For over an hour, Matt and his friends drove around aimlessly. They talked about the girls they liked, quoted funny movies back and forth to each other, and tried to one-up each other on raunchy jokes. Completely engulfed in their new world, none of them saw the other driver as they drifted into oncoming traffic.
All three of Matt’s friends and the driver of the other car died that day. Matt walked away—banged up—but remembering every detail. From the survivor guilt, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the act of the accident itself, Matt was one of the most suicidal clients EPP had ever seen. His parents had sent him to intense talk therapy to help him dissipate his suicidal feelings. Matt wouldn’t. He couldn’t. He blamed himself and he wanted to die. His family was worried that they were going to lose Matt forever. Sucked into a pit of despair during a time in his life that should be all about hope and possibilities.
The first couple of months that we saw Matt, he was quiet. The time it takes each person to open up to their horse is different. Our role with Matt was to teach him how to communicate in a different language with his horse, teach them how to trust each other, and let the horse be a reassuring friend. Week by week, we could see Matt softening around the edges, but we couldn’t get him to start talking about the accident.
Matt’s equine partner was Jubee. Small, brown, and wary, Jubee was sent to the CSU Equine program as a feral, seven-year-old American Quarter Horse. His flight response was so dialed in that if you reached up to scratch your nose, he bolted to the other end of his enclosure. The students at CSU worked with Jubee for over a decade until he was so well trained that he would load himself into a trailer, do a pattern of obstacles with voice cues alone, and take care of (with extraordinary patience and kindness) a wide variety of new riders. When Jubee was donated to EPP, he became the go-to therapy horse for children who needed to learn to trust again, who were timid around horses, or who (like Matt) needed to connect. Jubee has a very special way of pulling people out of their shells. (In fact, we can’t say enough positive things about the training CSU provides and also the wonderful breed of the American Quarter Horse!)
During one of Matt’s sessions, we focused on teaching him how to lunge Jubee. Lunging a horse requires the handler to be dialed in to both their own and the horse’s body language and be comfortable using voice commands to guide their horse around them in a controlled manner. Our therapist had just stepped out of the circle to let Matt try it on his own when Jubee decided to lock his jaw, spin out, and take off. In the span of 3 seconds, Matt was at the other end of the arena, being dragged through the sand and refusing to let go of the lunge line.
When Jubee finally stopped, Matt sat at the end of the arena, looking down at his blistered hands. He was quiet for a long time. When he finally spoke, he said the most incredible thing.
“I guess I really need to learn how to let go.”
It spoke volumes, and it was a major breakthrough in Matt’s healing.
It really goes to show that horses know exactly what they need to do. Jubee had never done that before, and has never done it since. Jubee and Matt worked together for another eight months until Matt reached his therapy goals and said goodbye to EPP. Matt graduated high school and started college on the east coast. His family got in touch with us recently to update us on how Matt has been: “he is making friends easily, he tries to make people laugh, and he volunteers at a horse rescue to spend time outdoors with his “new best friends.”