In an Anaheim Hills field, a large Norwegian Fjord horse galloped around, tail held high.
The athletic horse, which looked like Sitron from the Disney animated film "Frozen," is among a new army of animals that are helping therapists provide rehabilitative services for children with social, psychological and behavioral challenges.
"It's like a giant big dog," said Allison Davis Maxon, a licensed marriage and family therapist with the Seneca Canyon Acres Ranch, which uses horses in its Guided Animal Intervention Therapy Program, or GAIT. "A horse loves unconditionally."
The Anaheim Hills treatment center is celebrating its 35th anniversary. It recently underwent a $200,000 renovation project.
Through the center's equine riding program, it has served more than 1,000 children and families in Orange, Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside counties each year, Maxon said.
At the 4.6-acre ranch, children are placed on horseback in an effort to build a relationship with the animal.
Horses provide immediate feedback, reacting to the rider's actions and body language.
"How you act, the horse will act," Maxon said. "Children are drawn to a horse because they're big and large, and horses are attuned to read out cues. We have kids communicating their feelings with horses over time."
The horses help the kids get in touch with fears, anxiety and mistrust, she said, adding that they also learn self-control and teamwork.
Before riding, the children must first care for the animal — grooming it and equipping it with a saddle, stirrups, reins and other riding accessories. After advancing to riding, they learn games on horseback and continue to observe horse dynamics.
Maxon said children's self-esteem increases and they develop a stronger self-confidence in their abilities.
Children also benefit physically from riding; the movements build core strength.
Each child has a therapist who is there during the hour's session with a horse.
"This is very integrative," Maxon said. "The horse is the motivator but is still therapeutic. This program presents challenges to a child who has to be the problem-solver. It's empowering."
Horses have been viewed as therapeutic aids since ancient Greece. And 17th century literature described therapeutic riding as being prescribed for low morale and neurological disorders.
Seneca Canyon Acres Ranch is 35 years old and its GAIT program is over 15 years old. Before GAIT, the ranch was a residential treatment center for children in the foster care system.
The agency said it is seeking volunteers. Currently, more than 200 children receive therapeutic services at Seneca Canyon Acres Ranch each week, said Maxon.
"It's always rewarding to hear children start vocalizing again," she said. "There's something about a horse that help build someone up."