Almost 10 years ago, working on an article for the Psychotherapy Networker, I called up therapist Doug Mann, who used horses as cotherapists in his work with troubled adolescents and their families. While we were talking, I mentioned that my 8-year-old daughter loved horses, but that we lived in a Chicago suburb. Doug invited Alex, my daughter, and me to his home in rural Colorado.
Because we'd never find his house, nestled in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we planned to meet him in a weedy parking lot beside an abandoned cafe and follow him along miles of labyrinthine dirt roads. He drove up in a battered pickup truck with a cracked windshield, a huge mastiff sitting alongside him, its drool wetting down the stuffing that seeped through the cracks in the truck's upholstery. Alex, growing up in a comfortably liberal suburb in the Midwest flatlands, had never seen anything like this.
"You wanna ride with me or your dad?" Doug asked.
I was surprised but pleased when she ran over and climbed into his truck. I'd always considered many of her friends' parents overprotective and had been proud about letting her take more chances than most of her friends. Any anxiety this had caused me had seemed a reasonable price to pay for helping her develop the confidence to step out into the world and explore. It built trust between us. If you keep too tight a rein on your kid, you teach her mostly to be a good liar, and when the inevitable day comes for her to step out on her own—a day that, despite every parent's fantasy, never comes when you choose it—she'll be less prepared.
That afternoon, Doug took Alex to a small round pen to get acquainted with Buddy, a big, high-strung, unpredictable horse, whom he described as a "perpetual adolescent." Alex had previously known only stable horses, which walked along well-groomed paths while dreaming of feedbags. Standing next to Buddy was the difference between watching a tiger caged in a zoo and smelling a tiger's breath in the jungle.