Equine-assisted psychotherapy is an experiential modality involving a metaphorical process using a horse or horses as conduits for emotional growth and healing. Horses have been on the earth for about 50 million years,1 and in many ways have contributed to the unfolding of history. As stated in the book Horse: How the Horse Has Shaped Civilizations, “For thousands of years horses have provided sustenance, status, companionship, and the ability to establish and expand empires.”2 In my work with clients with behavioral health issues including addictions, I have witnessed horses providing the missing link for clients stuck in their disease and resulting thinking distortions.
Typically, I work in groups with no more than eight individuals at a time. My groups comprise clients struggling with dual diagnoses involving some combination of chemical dependency, trauma history, depression, eating disorders, sexual abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more. I begin groups with brief introductions, asking participants to share their first name, their titles (for example, “I am an alcoholic”), their feelings at the time, and if they have any horse experience. The last check-in question is of the least significance. Out of 1,000 or so people with whom I have facilitated equine-assisted therapy, I can recall only two whom I considered to be truly horse-experienced; this has nothing to do with the process.
No skills are required for an individual to receive substantial benefits from equine-assisted psychotherapy. This experiential therapy can be provided for anyone—whether a person likes horses or not, has never touched a horse, or is deathly afraid of the animal. The only thing that would preclude someone from attendance in one of my groups would be a severe allergy to horses, dust or hay.
How it works
I am never sure what will unfold in the therapy process. I decide in the moment if I will use one horse, more, go into the arena, stay near a stall, set up a challenge, or utilize a specific exercise with a horse. In retrospect, I really don't decide at all. The process unfolds itself, silently dictated by the horse, the client and my response to whatever the client is bringing to the session.
Many obvious factors make the equine sessions different from talk therapy in a room, but what is key is not only the presence of one or more horses, but that the therapist knows how to look to the horse for information. As an equine therapist, I see my role as paying close attention to what the horse is doing, what the client is doing and saying, and what the interaction is between them. I am aware that my own transference and intuition are also an important factor in the magic of equine therapy.
My agenda is never that clients learn something about a horse, but that they learn something about themselves. In fact, at the end of group, if clients try to process what they learned about horses, I will redirect them. I tend to gauge the success of the interventions by whether a client talks about the horse or him/herself. I rarely accommodate questions about horses, confronting instead the need to ask questions about horse behavior and how the client might be using questioning as a form of deflection or avoidance.
Equine-assisted therapy is a brief therapy. The facilitator must glean information quickly from a client's statement and interaction with the horse. This is then fed back to the client, helping to identify a lifetime pattern that has resulted in dysfunction. One small interaction can tell a client's whole story of how he/she has behaved in the world and what emotional responses and behaviors have been used as coping mechanisms. Once an issue is identified, the facilitator can then support the client in practicing an intervention for change. This entire piece is circular in motion and may take only five minutes.
These are the four components of effective, brief and powerful equine-assisted therapy:
The client connects to a presenting issue.
The facilitator helps the client explore where the thoughts and feelings originated.
The facilitator supports the client in identifying the metaphor.
The facilitator implements an intervention for behavioral change.
Here is an example of what this might look like (all names are fictitious):
Jane was hesitant to approach the horse. Her body posture was rigid and her step timid. (It is critical that the therapist pay attention to the body language of the client and the horse, as this provides a wealth of information.) As she approached our gelding, Reddy, he immediately moved in closer and nuzzled with her. She then lifted her hand to touch him and became tearful. I gently asked her what she was feeling, and she expressed sadness. I asked if she could tell me what the tears were saying, if her tears could speak. (I frequently focus on feelings as my way into a client's internal world, as most clients with addiction are very comfortable intellectualizing and sharing their thoughts but are challenged in sharing feelings.)