By Danielle Sukenik, LMFT, EAGALA Certified, Equine Therapist at The Ranch Some imagine equine-assisted psychotherapy is about galloping through the woods with the wind in their hair; however, it is actually a therapeutic process that is very different from a recreational trail ride or a visit to a dude ranch. While the horse is an integral part of the treatment, riding skills are not necessary. By facilitating the work true to the EAGALA model, individuals engage in work on the ground, not on the horse. While riding is therapeutic by nature, groundwork allows the human and horse to stand face to face, on equal footing, whereas the horse is under the human’s command while riding. On the ground, both human and horse are given the space to be themselves and engage authentically. The human-horse relationship now becomes the focus of the treatment. In addition to interpersonal relationships, equine-assisted psychotherapy assists with a broad range of issues, from anxiety, depression and low self-esteem to a spectrum of addictions and co-occurring mental health conditions, as well as those with a history of trauma. By engaging with horses through an experiential approach, individuals can learn about themselves, their relationships and emotions, and skills essential to the recovery process, such as:
The way people communicate and build rapport with horses is usually a reflection of how they do so in relationship with others. Because horses communicate mainly through non-verbal body language, individuals learn to be mindful of these cues they observe as well as their own body language as they respond. Through these interactions with a horse, useful information about an individual’s way of relating to others and their communication style is highlighted. This information increases awareness and motivates change to adopt new, more effective ways of engaging with others.
Boundaries are a necessary part of healthy relationships. It is each individual’s responsibility to teach others, including horses, how to treat them. While most horses involved in this work are kind and gentle, it cannot be assumed they will always fit the mold of being a “good guy.” And while he may be endearing, that certainly does not mean he can do whatever he please! Instead, individuals learn to be proactive in setting boundaries with the horse which fosters trust and respect. A similar dynamic rings true in human relationships.
- Assertiveness and Leadership
Like people, horses will often see what they are allowed to get away with. Horses can teach us how to be assertive by virtue of setting limits with them. To be effective and safe with the horse, individuals must be assertive, balance their needs with the horse’s requests, and embrace leadership attributes. Otherwise, the horse will lead to where he wants to go ― most likely to food.
Working with a physically large animal such as a horse creates opportunity to overcome fear and increase confidence as many may be initially intimidated. This becomes a symbol of confronting other difficult, fear-provoking situations in life. And while horses are big on the outside, they are small on the inside. Individuals can experience what it is like to feel safe in the presence of things bigger than them, leading to the rebuilding of trust too.
Horses are social herd animals. They rely on other members of the herd for protection and portray the meaning of “strength in numbers.” Horses model the importance of having a support network rather than isolation as many humans tend to do in distress.
- Being Present
Horses live in the moment and follow their instincts. They do not live in the past or worry about the future. Being in the presence of a horse invites an individual to also embrace the present, increase awareness of their environment, and experience the here and now. Being present, or engaging in mindfulness, is essential to coping with life and reducing distress.
- Managing Emotions
Due to horses being prey animals, they are hypervigilant and capable of detecting human emotions. Horses respond to this information accordingly. Through this honest feedback, individuals gain awareness about their emotions and also experience that by changing themselves, the horses will often respond differently. With this insight, the human learns to be congruent as emotional awareness and external presentation become more aligned.
Horses are honest and authentic animals. They do not know how to be anyone but themselves. As they follow their instincts, horses prefer that the human also be genuine. If an individual presents as inauthentic, the horse will have a difficult time knowing if the person is safe. Being honest is the precursor to reconnecting and reclaiming authentic self.
Horses model excellent self-care by eating when they are hungry, fleeing when there is danger, and scratching their head on a post when they have an itch. Though they are sensitive to others, as prey animals, their primary focus is taking care of themselves (and their herd). When an individual is with a horse, they are responsible for taking care of themselves.
While it is possible to influence a horse, a horse cannot be controlled as they are beings with a mind of their own. While working with horses, things will not always go as expected or as hoped, requiring acceptance (and patience too!). By accepting, valuable lessons in being flexible and letting go are learned. Acceptance is an essential part of life, relationships and the recovery process. Ultimately, being with a horse requires vulnerability, or willingness to let go of control. Whether an individual is confronting their codependent nature in relationships by learning to set boundaries and be assertive, overcome their everyday fears, or instill a newfound sense of self-confidence and self-worth, horses are capable of teaching many valuable lessons to humans. These lessons can improve one’s quality of life and relationships and provide skills to overcome the most difficult challenges.