“I’ve often said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside…
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy: The Magic of Horses
by Timothy S. Risler – Director of E.H.S.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is one of the fastest growing segments in the mental health field. EAP has proven to be an extremely effective form of therapy that can be implemented in tandem with other more traditional modes of therapy. Unlike traditional therapies, EAP takes place within an arena or barn setting with horses, a mental health professional, and an equine professional.
Through structured and mutually respectful activities, EAP utilizes the horse to both provoke responses from the client and then mirror that client’s behavior. EAP is not “play therapy”, nor is it some existential experience. Rather, the therapist facilitates the session and monitors the client while the equine specialist monitors the horse in order to infer and interpret the subtle ways the horse’s body language communicates comfort, discomfort, and incongruence in the presence of the client.
Using specific exercises and scenarios, and with the aid of the treatment team, EAP clients learn about themselves and others by processing the horse’s response and their own feelings, behaviors, and patterns during the session. The EAP professionals are ever-present to help interpret the horse’s response.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is experiential instead of solely intellectual, which makes it especially effective for treatment-resistant clients or people having difficulty progressing within the parameters of traditional office therapy.
EAP shows how a person responds to difficult and challenging situations “in the present”. The focus moves from the client-therapist relationship to the client’s relationship with the horse, and ultimately, with themselves. Some of the issues addressed might include: What kind of life skills does the client utilize in tight or challenging situations? Is a particular response serving the client? Equine Assisted Psychotherapy can be a powerful alternative to traditional talk therapy, or can simply provide insight for an individual who maybe confronting a difficult therapeutic juncture.
Therefore, the focus of EAP is not riding or horsemanship. In fact, 100% of EAP takes place on the ground. Rather, the focus of EAP involves constructing activities and challenges involving the horses that will require the client or group to interact with the animal, and then to apply certain skills or improved responses/behaviors to a given challenge. Non-verbal communication, assertiveness-training, creative thinking, alternative problem-solving, leadership-training, responsibility recognition, teamwork building, relationship analysis, confidence building activities, and attitude are several of the goals EAP may assist in attaining.
I have been involved in some discussions on the “magic” of horses; meaning the ability of horses to heal people. Embracing the concept that it doesn’t matter what you do with horses, it is the interaction itself that provokes therapeutic benefit. I’ve heard so many times, ” If it wasn’t for my horse, I don’t know how I could deal with the stresses of my life”. I agree there is magic about horses, however, I disagree that merely being in the horse’s presence creates effective Equine Assisted Psychotherapy sessions or necessarily makes positive changes in peoples lives. In order to achieve the desired results and for the interaction to be therapeutic, trained experienced professionals are essential.
The majority of our clients have no horse experience. However, as a treatment intervention focused on improving long-term life skills, more is necessary for the attainment of growth and learning than merely, “I feel happy and good when I’m with horses.” The skill of the human facilitators determines the EPA. The horses assist, but they do not facilitate. We have had several Equine Assisted Psychotherapy sessions lately, which magnified the importance of the facilitators’ skills of processing. The processing made the difference between a “that’s nice” or even disastrous sessions and an intense, meaningful session.
One example is that we asked a 24 year old male client to catch and halter a horse. He walked out there and as soon as the horse took a step towards him, there was an immediate connection. Nick was able to place the halter on the horse, but struggled in getting the horse to walk around the arena. Nick said that this horse reminded him of himself “stubborn”.
Nick participated in an exercise called “Build an Obstacle”. Each of the group members built an obstacle that resembled a barrier in their life. Nick built an obstacle that represented his father’s suicide. Nick started to walk his horse towards his obstacle, but the horse stopped. Nick turned and walked back to the horse and petted it slowly. He said that he was trying to gain trust with his horse. After spending some time with the horse, Nick finally was able to get the horse to move and go over the jump. Nick came to a second obstacle that represented relationships. The horse stopped, and Nick turned and talked and petted the horse in hopes of getting him to move again. Nick appeared to become more frustrated as time passed, and the horse would not move. Nick became disrespectful towards other clients when they tried to help him. He would blame everyone else for his problems. Nick wanted to quit the exercise and leave.
The horse professional asked Nick who the horse reminded him of. Nick said that the horse reminded him of an old girlfriend. The counselor asked if that was the only person that the horse reminded him of. Nick then stated that the horse reminded him of his mother. At this time Nick broke down and said that he had blamed his mother for his father’s death and had a lot of anger towards her. After processing with the counselor, he realized that it was not his mother’s fault and appeared to let go of some of the anger and blame. He realized that blaming his mother was hurting him and undermining his recovery. At this time he asked if he could let the horse go. He took the halter and lead rope off, and the horse followed him all over the arena. Nick broke down again and stated that by letting go, the horse willingly followed him anywhere. He realized that by letting the resentments go, he could begin to deal with his father’s death and his relationship with his mother.
Did the “magic ” of horses help in this situation? Yes it did. However, it was the facilitators pro-actively using that “magic” which worked to re-engage the client. It was not the magic alone. Most clients want to have a successful relationship with the horse. We have been successful using that to refocus the client as to how his or her behaviors are affecting the horse. This is part of the magic; the clients generally don’t care how their behaviors affect other people, but they do care how it affects the horse.
We have had several sessions with this client. Every session the client has gone through greater self discovery and self-healing. He is beginning to catch himself before he gets angry or tries to blame someone else. He has learned a great deal of self-respect as well as respect for others. He has also learned that he has to change his behavior in order for the horses to be willing to work with him.
COPAC and EHS (Equine Healing Solutions) work together to provide this therapeutic experience. The satisfaction surveys on this program are amazing.