Horses help target emerging youth offenders on Gold Coast

Could four legs be better than two when it comes to steering emerging offenders away from entering the criminal justice system?

A program that uses horses to teach young people how to control their emotions and behaviour is one of a raft of proactive programs Gold Coast police and partner agencies are using to help prevent youth crime in the district.

Horses Helping Humans is funded through the Community Based Crime Action Committee (CBCAC), which is one of several committees set up across the state in 2020 as part of the Queensland Government’s Five Point Plan to reduce youth crime.

Initially identified by police in Logan District, Horses Helping Humans is a privately run program which matches the personality of each participant with a horse’s temperament, and embeds an understanding of how body language affects communication.

It was developed by horse trainer and handler Sue Spence who has been facilitating the program at her property at Tallebudgera for several years.

A girl and a woman with a white pony
Participants learn horsemanship skills and learn to control their emotions and adjust their body language.

Detective Senior Constable Craig Andrew of the Gold Coast Child Protection and Investigation Unit (CPIU) has been instrumental in many of the district’s youth crime initiatives and has driven the horses program since the outset in October 2021.

He said using horses to break through to young people was a novel approach that could resonate with participants and start them on a journey that improved their life trajectory.

“There are plenty of studies showing that animals can be useful for therapy and in some cases can teach important life lessons more effectively than other humans can,” Detective Senior Constable Andrew said.

“These horses come from challenging backgrounds, as do many of our participants, and each has developed its own personality quirks in response to that.

“One has a domineering personality, one is a follower, another is flighty and has trouble maintaining focus.

“Some of our young people are followers, and are following other kids into crime. Some of them are domineering and engaging in bullying behaviour, while others suffer from ADHD and may struggle to maintain focus.

“The kids are matched up with the horse that best teaches them what they as individuals need to learn,” he said.

Participants do not ride the horses during the program, but are taught horsemanship skills such as leading the horses through a series of manoeuvres. There is also a component of grooming and caring for the horses.

Convincing an animal to obey a command requires the appropriate mix of patience and assertiveness. Detective Senior Constable Andrew said the program taught participants how to deal with anxiety and develop self-control.

“They start each session with breathing exercises to help them focus. They develop empathy and learn to adjust their body language to get the horses to trust them enough to follow their commands,” he said.

A large brown and white horse stepping over a barrier

A black pony being brushed.

A girl leading a white pony in a paddock
The personality of each horse is different, and they are matched to individual participants.

Each course comprises three sessions of one and a half hours duration, with one session per week for three weeks. After the third session, the participant graduates from the course and receives a trophy.

Two police officers transport the participants to and from their place of residence and each session is followed by lunch, which extends the opportunity to break down barriers and build rapport between youth and police.

The Gold Coast CBCAC funds three participants per month, with referrals sourced from the QPS Youth Co-Responder Team (YCRT) and partner agencies including Youth Justice and Education Queensland.

Detective Senior Constable Andrew said while not all participants completed the program, those who did generally demonstrated improved behaviour and reduced offending.

“We target young people from around the age of 11 who are disengaging with school and coming to the attention of police,” Detective Senior Constable Andrew said.

“These are often children who are in a period of transition from primary school to high school.

“Their bodies are changing, they are becoming more independent and they are vulnerable to peer pressure, especially if they are mixing with the wrong crowd.

“After completing the course, parents, carers and schools are reporting less conflict at home and improved school attendance and engagement.”

One participant, a 15-year-old girl, first came to the attention of police in February 2021. Over the next few months, she was charged with 12 offences, mostly involving violence towards others.

She was disengaged from schooling and on bail for a robbery matter when the YCRT sought consent for her to take part in the Horses Helping Humans program.

The girl completed the three sessions, which helped her to deal with anxiety and control her emotions. Since that time she has re-engaged with her schooling and has not committed any further offences.

Another girl, 13 years of age, was identified as an emerging youth associating with other well-known youth offenders.

In October 2021 she was cautioned for two property offences, which she had become involved with after peer pressure from older youths.

She completed Horses Helping Humans and another program funded by CBCAC, and is no longer associating with the other youth offenders and has not committed any further offences.

A man standing in front of a window with a view of the Gold Coast.
Detective Senior Constable Craig Andrew works with emerging offenders on the Gold Coast to prevent them from progressing into a life of crime.

Detective Senior Constable Andrew said while police maintained a strong focus on bringing the 10% of hardened youth offenders to justice, the right intervention at the right time in an emerging offender’s life was a crucial component of preventing youth crime.

“There are a range of different proactive programs Gold Coast police and partner agencies are working with, and we are open to trying different things to see what works,” he said.

“However, it’s never a simple fix. There are usually multiple issues involved, including domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health, and you are never going to address all these problems with one program.”

Having been a police officer for 20 years, the past 14 with the CPIU, he said working to prevent young people from taking up a life of crime was both a frustrating and uniquely rewarding job.

“It’s a different side of policing. You can arrest people, but there are other ways to work with kids. It’s more holistic but it’s harder to do and I enjoy the challenge.

“It can be frustrating because you don’t always get support from the parents and it’s also hard to accurately measure success because you are preventing something from happening.

“The rewards come when you know you have succeeded in turning a young person’s life around. It happens often enough to keep you going,” he said.

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