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Horses in Animal Assisted Psychology

Equine Assisted Psychology (EAP) is an experiential therapy

Equine Assisted Psychology is an animal assisted experiential approach to professional psychotherapy and counseling. It offers support for clients of all ages in addressing emotional, relational, behavioral and psychological issues. With horses as co facilitators, clients are actively engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically, to explore and examine their current challenges and derive their own meanings.  As each client’s experience is personal, the aim of EAP is to increase awareness for future learning and growth and to harness overall wellness.

 The horse as a co- facilitator

Horses are large powerful animals. They have been domesticated for many years however revert to their instincts of herd and survival behaviors. When in the wild they live in herds with defined social roles and function together because cooperation means their survival. Herd leaders create this cooperation and harmony by establishing boundaries based on values of respect, trust and discipline.  These horse value systems transfer into the horse-human experience, which also offers a non judgmental relationship as horse’s value relationships over territory (Hempfling, 1993).

Horses are prey or flight animals and embody mindfulness by living in the moment. They interact with their environment by reacting in flight and return to a state of homeostasis after the ‘threat’ has passed.  Clients may relate to the horse’s natural ‘flight response’ and psycho-education about the impulse to escape when the horse feels frightened or threatened can offer valuable lessons in healthy boundary setting, safety, managing anxiety and emotional regulation (Vidrine, Owen-Smith, & Faulkner, 2002).

In a therapy session, horses are generally untethered and free to walk around, interact, eat and play with other horses.  This offers a variety of opportunities for clients to express themselves through metaphor, projection, relationship and transference. As each horse has its own personality, an approach a client may use with one horse, may not work with another, providing a multitude of therapeutic opportunities.

Horses use clear communication

Horses use clear communication to interact with other horses and to a large extent this includes movement of their body, posture, ears and tones of voice as cues. For example, if a horse is focused on something it generally has its eyes and ears forward, while if they are upset or angry, their ears are pinned back toward their head. Learning to understand the horse’s body language and communication cues can bring clients back to basic awareness, enabling them to look after themselves around the horses in a session, and interpret their interactions.

For example, a young client may notice the horses ears pinned back when he approaches and interpret that as a warning and move away.  This example can be used to work on issues around creating boundaries and staying safe in their personal life.

Horses teaching emotional regulation

As the horse is a prey animal they are constantly aware of their surroundings, highly alert, very sensitive and exceptional at reading non-verbal communication cues. They can therefore sense underlying emotional and energy currents. Healthy horses are excellent examples of self-regulation and can reflect clients’ energy levels, be they high or low. For example, an angry client stomping around will be less likely to be able to engage with a horse, as opposed to a client who is calm and relaxed. These experiences highlight the impact of energy on engaging with horses and can be a lesson in using and managing different levels of emotion and energy in the real world.

As such, horses are like biofeedback mechanisms and can have physiological and calming effects and can assist in human self-regulation (Fine, 2010). Furthermore a client may feel overwhelmed when greeting a horse, and through noticing their emotional and physical reactions, we can effectively partner with a horse so the client learns to tune into their own sensations and energy, thus increasing their ability to self-regulate.

Horses as positive attachment figures and relationship role models

Horses offer opportunities for relational attunement through emotional congruency, good breathing, clear communication and boundaries (Trotter, 2012).  As positive connection and healthy attachment are one of the highest human needs, it is also true for horses and is important as part of modeling good gentle relationships (Fleming, 2013).

EAP is effective in helping those with attachment issues and childhood trauma. As research has shown, children who reside in families characterized by violence, often exhibit decreased levels of social competence, which is evidence of diminished interpersonal sensitivity, empathy, and appropriate interpersonal problem-solving skills (Margolin and Gordis 2000; Fantuzzo & Mohr, 1999).  Therefore relating with horses in a positive way encourages the development of skills and values that promote emotional health, including an understanding of fairness, patience, clear and consistent boundaries and being in a relationship free from judgment (Kirby, 2010).

‘Clients and horses can build safety, trust, relationship and intimacy that is both a corrective emotional experience and an opportunity to build relational skills and brain-body connections that may have been missing or underdeveloped’ (Kirby, 2010).

Therapeutic theories underpinning Equine Assisted Psychology

Solution Focused Brief Therapy is a psychotherapeutic approach that focuses on current problems and solutions. The goal of EAP is not to pathologize, but build on client strengths. Using horses creates a context in which this can occur.

Gestalt Therapy is a relational therapy and a process of holistic self exploration and healing across all levels of experience; feeling, sensing and thinking. Horses working with humans can support exploration beyond the intellectual mind into understanding awareness of the body’s responses to emotions, by learning to sense physiological reactions which can provide an opportunity for healing.  This approach works well with those who have experienced developmental, workplace and other traumas (Kirby, 2010).

Family Systems Therapy explores intergenerational patterns of behaviors, dynamics and challenges within families and in relationships with others.  As mentioned horses are social animals and generally live in herds, therefore clients can learn about teamwork, family relationships, leadership and what is involved in living with others respectfully and in harmony. As the client becomes part of the dynamic of the herd (usually four horses) communication, behaviour, coping and responding to challenges becomes evident.

Naomi has trained in two models of Equine Assisted Therapy 

In brief the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning (EAGALA) Model theory is based on experiential therapy and learning through metaphor and projection. A common question to the client may be ‘which horse might you be drawn to today and why?’ EAP draws on Solution Focused Brief Therapy. The EAGALA Model includes a Client, Equine Specialist, Mental Health Professional and Horse/s.

The second model is the Equine Psychotherapy Australia (EPA) Model which underpinned by Gestalt psychotherapy and it fosters an “I-Thou” relationship between practitioner-client-horse. It is a holistic approach working across different layers of functioning including the body, feeling, cognitions, and relational well-being (Kirby, 2010). The EPA Model includes a Client, Registered Mental Health Practitioner, and the Horse/s.

The Team Approach to Safety and Ethical Practice

EAP mental health staff are registered with the Psychology Board of Australia. They have experience working in various mental health settings including psychiatry, local government, not for profit organizations, disaster recovery, employee assistance programs, critical incidents and schools. The staff are trained in trauma sensitive therapeutic practices specifically Sensori-motor psychotherapy.

The EAP staff have a good knowledge of horse psychology and physiology. The horse’s temperaments and characteristics are known to the clinical team. Horses rely on their natural instincts to keep themselves safe. Therefore knowledge of the horses in the therapy sessions assists in minimizing risk for the horses, clients and facilitators.

EAP is primarily ground work and clients generally do not ride horses in activities, as therapeutically it is not important to master horse riding. The horse is a part of the therapeutic process, not the focus.  The ground–based activities and subsequent reflection, enable the client to experience the possibility of forming solutions themselves and developing a relationship with learning to connect with the horses.

Evidence based research of Equine Assisted Psychology is an emerging field in Australia, however international research has shown EAP to be effective with people who experience anxiety and mood disorders, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, attention deficit disorders, high-risk behaviours, attachment issues and post traumatic stress (Fine, 2010; Klonz, Bivens, Leinart, Klontz, Taylor, 2001; Tramutt, 2003;Trotter, 2012; Tyler, 1994; Vidrine, Owen-Smith, & Faulkner., 2002; Zugich, Klontz & Leinart, 2002).

Finally, to ensure you are receiving appropriate Equine Assisted Psychology from a qualified mental health practitioner and trained Equine Assisted Psychology please ensure you ask those offering EAP for their qualifications, training and expertise. There are people who offer activities with horses and call it therapy, who do not have the necessary psychological qualifications and or appropriate experience. For those who are trained to offer this as an adjunct therapy, it is truly a gentle way to find natural balance and increase and harness personal wellness.