Horse people have known for years that horses are great “therapists.” They mirror our problems and have infinite patience until we get it right on the ground, under saddle or in finding solutions to a range of horse care challenges. The exciting news is that the mental health field is discovering how to tap into these qualities to help people who may not own a horse or even have ever come in direct contact with horses.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is a modality where clients participate in therapeutic exercises under the guidance of a team of a mental health professional, equine professional and horse(s). EAP is an experiential psychotherapy comparable to psychodrama. It utilizes groundwork tasks as simple as catching or leading, and more complicated things, like longeing or moving the horse (s) with hand signals. Treatment with EAP is based on a complete mental health evaluation and an individualized treatment plan.
Why are horses such good therapists?
1) Horses Have The Qualities Clients Want in A Therapist
Horses have the most important qualities of the effective psychotherapist. They are authentic and are not afraid to communicate. Remember the saying, “Horses never lie.” Horses are highly relational and perceptive; they demonstrate attunement and mirror the client with surprising accuracy, responding to clients as they are not as they appear to be. This is very helpful to their partner, the human therapist, because it allows them to contribute to the diagnostic as well as treatment process.
One of my first cases was a teenage girl who was referred with a “rap sheet” of conduct problems and a label of being “untreatable” in traditional talk therapy. I was astounded when even the most cautious of the program horses immediately responded to her with enthusiasm and trust. I dropped my negative expectations and became open to her inner strengths and potential for change.
2) Horses Set Ground Rules For Respect
Horses have individual personalities like humans and horse herds and groupings operate according to complicated social relationships and interactions based on clear rules about power, physical boundaries and personal space. Many clients who come for help have never experienced healthy boundaries or respect for their personal space. They have learned to survive by not confronting situations or demanding respect. At times their ability to correctly perceive danger has also been desensitized by childhood abuse or neglect.
I once worked with a client who repeatedly walked into a horse’s personal space in a round pen exercise without any awareness of how the horse was experiencing her behavior. Despite the fact that the horse was beginning to be stressed and acting in a threatening way pinning it’s ears and baring it’s teeth, she continued to make overtures of friendship. She was puzzled when the equine specialist stepped in and asked her to back away to a safe distance because she was placing herself in danger. We all then processed what had happened and what she and the horse had been experiencing. Soon thereafter she was able to follow through on her goal of ending her relationship with an abusive, controlling man.
3) Horse Have Problems Too
Horses readily demonstrate a variety oftroublesome emotions and problematic behaviors similar to those human clients exhibit including anger, jealousy, impatience and possessiveness. Most clients find it uncomfortable to acknowledge such problems directly, and being able to observe and reflect on the horse allows the client to identify and discuss these problems without defensiveness.
As the head horse of the therapy herd at my EAP program, the real Quincy has a habit of meeting each new client at the gate and showing his dominance by not letting any of the other horses approach. Asking clients to describe what Quincy is doing and feeling is a great way to introduce them to what happens in EAP.
4) Horses Deal in Natural Consequences
Horses give feedback in the form of natural consequences. If we don’t get it right, they don’t get it done. I am reminded of a trailer consult I once had for a problem loader. The trainer pointed out that in my anxious attempt to coax the horse onto the trailer, I was standing in the middle of the trailer ramp blocking his way! EAP is an opportunity for observation of body language, nonverbal communication and challenges to be decisive in finding a “voice” and giving effective verbal commands.
5) Horses Make Therapy Fun
Horses have positive energy, graceful motion and joy. Horse therapy is fun! It helps client’s overcome constricted emotions, learned helplessness and negative thought patterns. They are encouraged to be playful, to think outside the box, let go of shame, blame and self-consciousness and get to work finding creative solutions