On Monday, March 7, I was privileged to attend an equine-assisted psychotherapy session with Lisa Baugh. Not that I needed help, mind you. This half-day meeting was actually a training/orientation session for healthcare professionals who were interested in learning more about this technique and possibly incorporating it into their programs. I was just along for the ride, so to speak.
Baugh is a licensed marriage and family therapist certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Though she works with all sorts of people, she has a special empathy for horse people because of her equestrian background. She has ridden since age 6 but was also always an analytical thinker. “The field of psychotherapy is daunting. It’s hard to decide where to go,” she said. “Equine psychotherapy is a nice niche, a perfect fit.”
Baugh explains that equine-assisted psychotherapy, or EAP, is very different from hippotherapy. “Hippotherapy and therapeutic riding are basically physical therapy using horses,” she said. “The horse’s movements mimic those of a person walking, and so help a variety of physical issues. It has mental benefits as well, of course. But EAP focuses on the prevention and resolution of psychological, emotional and behavioral issues. It incorporates horses in the counseling process. Clients participate in unmounted activities designed to help them learn about themselves, to uncover negative thought and behavior patterns, and to help define healthy relationships.”
Baugh has been offering EAP for eight years. Almost 90 percent of her clients are adults. Sessions are given at various facilities in the area. Ours was at a private barn in Little Ranches, on the outskirts of Wellington. Linda McLendon, executive director of Full Circle Therapeutic Riding, was co-facilitator. The other four participants were Randi, a clinical social worker; Zena, a school guidance counselor; Bonnie, a geriatric social worker; and Cindy, a marriage therapist. Their horse backgrounds ranged from none to extensive. Everyone was very positive and really looking forward to the three-hour class.
The first hour and a half was spent on background information: what EAP is and how it works. Baugh explained that working with horses can be healing on many levels. Even just touching or watching horses, as opposed to riding them, can lead to breakthroughs and insights along a broad continuum of levels. All of her work is done through unmounted activities.
“Horses are very empowering,” she said. “Yet they can also be disempowering. It’s not all warm and fuzzy. Horses are big. They don’t have to do what you want them to do. When a horse isn’t being compliant, you have to try to understand its motivation. Why aren’t you getting the results you want?” That is all part of the therapy, of course. “This sort of thing carries over very well into personal and family dynamics,” Baugh explained. “If a horse is nippy, how are you gonna stop that? If you’re being bullied by someone or bothered by an obnoxious co-worker, how are you gonna stop that?” “Horses and their behavior really lend themselves to metaphors about many aspects of our lives,” she continued. “Horses are disarming. They’re a great psychotherapeutic tool. Watching herd behavior translates to a lot of human social interactions.”
Then, it was time for a pretend session. We were given a brief safety lecture — horses can kick, bite, stomp on your foot — and we were told that each person was in charge of her own safety. “You can meet and greet the horses however you like,” Lisa told us. “You can touch them, but you don’t have to.”
It was a cool morning, and the four horses were feeling frisky when they were turned out in the riding ring. They had no equipment on them. They ran around, nipping at each other, kicking up their heels, basically enjoying the day. We stood in a group in the center, watching. Eventually we were invited to choose a horse at random, put a halter on it and then lead it over a low ground rail. Doing the tasks wasn’t too difficult. But the insights that arose from observing the horses and doing the tasks were amazing. One member didn’t feel comfortable handling or touching a horse, but she stayed in the ring with us and still learned about herself. One person had trouble making her horse go over the ground rail the second time — when we had to make the horse go over it but couldn’t step over it ourselves. She talked to the horse the whole time, encouraging it. She kept doing the same thing over and over, until she finally stopped, regrouped and thought of a different way to proceed. Learning how we problem-solve — what works and what doesn’t — that’s something useful. We saw different things in our horses. Were those traits really there, or were we projecting our own opinions and beliefs? And yes, one person got her foot stomped on. Afterward, we left the horses and went back to our chairs to be debriefed.
Baugh told us that, many times, the “aha!” moment of insight comes hours or even days later. We filled out a sheet in which we detailed one thing we had learned and how we might focus on following through with it in our everyday lives. “Spending five minutes with a horse gave me a ton of insights,” Zena said. “I really want to learn more about this. I loved it.” “I liked that you had to be fully present with what was happening,” Bonnie said. “You’re much more aware and make great connections. This is a great way to do therapy.” “I like how experiential it is,” said Cindy, nursing her sore foot. “It’s not all about talking. You gain interesting insights. It’s very helpful.”
And as for me, I saw myself from a completely different perspective. Days later, I’m still dwelling on what I learned and using that insight to change how I interact with others. Plus, I had a blast.