A Horse Helps Children Believe in Themselves in “Mickey and the Plow Horse”

A plow horse's inner racehorse sparks a lonely boy's transformation in psychologist's teen-appeal novel.
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A plow horse's inner racehorse sparks a lonely boy's transformation in psychologist's teen-appeal novel.

Horses are good for us. Research tells us so. Whether it’s patting a therapy pony at a nursing home or growing up with the rich experience of chores, riding adventures and a horse to hug, the evidence is mounting that horses may kick and buck, but they also give us something special that is hard to label. But we know it’s there.

A new book by California psychologist Dr. Edward Dreyfus takes the “horse as muse” idea for a spin this winter. Can a horse also help a lonely child realize that he or she has potential, that life is worth living after all?

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"Mickey and the Plow Horse" puts readers in the shoes of 12-year-old Mickey Branfield, a shy and lonely boy with asthma who is more comfortable with technology than with people – until an unexpected encounter with a horse helps him see the world differently.

Asthma prevents Mickey from participating in team sports or even romping around the neighborhood with kids his age. He is isolated him from his peers and loves his iPad. His parents' solution is to unplug him and send him off to a summer camp.

At camp, Mickey discovers that he can communicate with--or perhaps through--a “plow” horse named Jackson. Mickey learns that Jackson began life as a Thoroughbred racehorse, but poor treatment led him to lose faith in himself.

If Mickey believes in Jackson, will it make up for the lost years the horse spent in a downward spiral until he ended up a camp horse? And if Jackson the horse believes in Mickey, might it help him build a life that spirals up, not down--or out?

Mickey and the Plow Horse cover

On the surface, this book is a modern revamp of the classic young adult horse novel: believing in a horse helps a teen believe in herself. Ordinary horses do extraordinary things. And everything is possible at a summer camp with horses!

But there's more at stake here, because it is fast-forwarded to the present day and because the isolated teen is so ignored and forgotten in our culture...until a tragedy occurs.

Reading this book wasn't easy, since Mickey isn't the most likable of heroes. He feels awfully sorry for himself. He's that lonely kid that we all wonder about. What is he capable of doing--on his best day and on his worst day?

The isolated teen is the obvious one in need. But how many other teens are masking the wounds of hypercritical home environments--or their own hypercritical self-talk that convinces them they aren't worthy of friends or fun or even a future?

I liked this book because the hero is a boy. We have so many books about girls who find soulmates in horses, but here is the most unlikely of boys to ever set foot in a stable. Parts of the book are completely unbelievable, in terms of horse training achievements in a short time and the telepathic nature of horse-human communication, but others may not have a problem with that, and children certainly won't. In the interest of the story, the whole experience has to fit in one summer at a camp.

I'm sure that the book is designed to be discussed in groups or perhaps with a counselor or therapist. Or even in college education courses that train teachers and coaches who will be working with adolescents. How do you engage the loner, the outsider, the tech geek who just wants to game away the day?

Winston Churchill's oft-heard quote, "There's something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a (hu)man" was never more true than it is now...with official research to back it up.

Author Edward Dreyfus, PhD

Author Edward Dreyfus, PhD

We read so much about organized programs of horse-assisted therapy, such as programs in prisons and for returning veterans. But we shouldn't forget adolescent boys and girls, especially those who may have little interaction in their lives.

But most interesting of all, author Dreyfus asks us to think not just about Mickey, but about the horse, whose name is Jackson. He suggests that many adults can and will identify with the horse: they may have had a glorious childhood and been told how full of promise they were, but once they stumbled, they kept stumbling--or thought they did.

To avoid disappointment, their expectations and aspirations are set lower and lower. They just want to fit in. Be invisible. Disappear. But they disappear into a lonely life not too far removed from the isolated teenagers seeking solace in gaming or science fiction. Even though a racehorse lives within, the exterior shows little sign of it.

"This story is dedicated to all the plow horses within whom lies the thoroughbred," the author writes in a dedication. In this age of equine rescue and rehabilitation, we should remember that humans can make great comebacks, too. 

To learn more:

Horsing Around in Childhood Really Can Change Your Life

CNN Heroes: Horses Are Good for People

Healing with Horses: Alzheimer's Dementia Patients Respond to Equine Therapy

Research: Good News/Bad News on Benefits of Horses for Humans