ST. LOUIS – May is Mental Health Awareness Month and new CDC data revealed the mental health of teenagers declined during the pandemic.

A local organization said they fielded an increased number of calls regarding this very thing. So, they put together a program last fall called Breaking Barriers. It is a non-riding program that pairs people and horses.

Equine Assisted Therapy in Wildwood may look like a typical horse farm, but it is anything but typical. They provide horsemanship experiences for people with physical, mental, or psychological challenges or disabilities.

“When the horses recognize that the person is struggling, they can give us feedback by their body language, which we can then turn around to the person and kind of prompt them and find out maybe what they’re feeling. Are you feeling anxious, are you feeling nervous, where are you at in your body to kind of understand with they can come into who they are,” licensed professional counselor and instructor Mary Downey-Jones said.

After Equine Assisted Therapy started Breaking Barriers after receiving a ton of phone calls.

“We started getting a lot of phone calls for kids, adults, just people in general who post-pandemic started having what we would call social anxiety issues,” Equine Assisted Therapy’s executive director Lulu Boglin said. “We were all locked in our house for quite a long time, especially teens. So this program is a non-riding program and the whole purpose of it is to get people engaging to get people to learn what body language says to others, how to take care of ourselves, how to take care of the horses and all of that translates and parallels into health relationships and healthy social activities.”

Aidan is a 7th grader at Southwest Middle School. He said the pandemic affected him. He was stuck in the house, which added to his social anxiety. He went through the Breaking Barriers program last fall.

“I thought it was going to be like just play with the horses thing and that it wouldn’t really work, but I think it really worked,” Aidan said. “I can read body language a lot better. We talked a lot about body language and how you can perceive the horse’s body language because that’s mainly how horses communicate.”

Aidan flourished in the program.

“For one, it just made me more confident, and two, you could tell a lot of the times sort of what people are thinking, like oh this guy’s shoulders are slumped, he must be like sad or mad,” Aidan said.

After overcoming some of his personal obstacles, now Aidan wants to do more. So he’s volunteering at the next Breaking Barriers session.

“You really just want to try and contribute to people as much as you can when you’re a volunteer, because if you’re just contributing to the horses, you’re not getting all that you can out of it,” Aidan said. “Give it a shot because I honestly did learn a lot, and I know a lot of other people in the class did and yeah, just give it a go.”

The next session of the Breaking Barriers program at Equine Assisted Therapy starts June 1 and runs for four weeks. It’s open to ages 14-18. They do have a limited number of spots open. It has become so popular, that it will become a regularly scheduled program there. They also have programs for veterans 55 and older.