Posted Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

Horses have come to the Morris County Juvenile Detention Center, but not as part of a Western movie.

The horses do have a featured role, however, in an Equine Assisted Learning Program designed to help the juvenile detainees at the Morris Township facility learn more about themselves.

“It’s a form of experience-based learning in which horses are used to assist in the personal growth and life skill learning of the Juvenile Detention Center residents,” said Mary Jo Buchanan, director of the county’s Department of Human Services. “The youngsters learn about themselves and others by engaging in activities with horses and then processing the feelings, behaviors and response patterns that emerge.”

The deputy director of the Juvenile Detention Center, Chief Anthony Maglio, an accomplished horseman and trainer, said horses are large and powerful social animals who communicate with each other through body language and voice. A key to the program is that each horse, like a person, has its own distinctive personality, Maglio said.

“When you’re trying to get a horse to follow a command, what works with one horse may not work with another,” Maglio said. “The youths may have to adjust their approach to each horse, leading to a discussion about how they may need to adjust their approach to other life situations as well. It fosters creative problem solving, healthy communication, cooperation and the development of leadership, conflict resolution and management skills.”

Because horses are animals of prey, they are keenly aware of their environment and of non-verbal aspects of communication, Maglio said.

“This encourages the participants to look more closely at their own non-verbal aspects of communication and how this impacts on their relationships and their attempts to attain certain goals in life,” Maglio said. “Most importantly, horses are unbiased and honest, making them especially compelling messengers.”

Chief Maglio said he is conducting the program with his own horses and at no expense to the county. He noted this is not a riding program, with all of the activities taking place on the ground.

Maglio is involved in similar programs outside the Juvenile Detention Center involving families, corporate teams and the military.