What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?
By Lisa Baugh

American novelist Thomas McGuane once wrote, “It is remarkable how consistently people with horses claim to have learned much about themselves through them. Certainly, the management of a horse will give you a rapid evaluation of your patience, your powers of concentration, and your ability to hold on to delicate ideas for sustained periods of time.” This philosophy is the basis for equine assisted psychotherapy, personal growth and team building.

How does it work?

Equine assisted psychotherapy is part of a new and innovative field where horses are used to facilitate emotional growth and learning in people. Participants engage in activities that incorporate horses and then process the feelings, behaviors, and thought patterns that emerge. Horsemanship and riding instruction are not emphasized. The technique has been compared to ropes or adventure courses used in experiential learning programs around the world. Activities can be as simple as observing horse behavior in a pasture or as difficult as performing a complex task. Some of the activities include catching, leading, grooming, or lunging horses. Others require clients to engage with horses and cooperatively achieve a pre-set goal. All the activities are un-mounted and specifically address social, emotional, and behavioral issues with a focus on helping people discover aspects of themselves rather than teaching or lecturing. The development of self-awareness, self-esteem, trust, social and communication skills, empathy, responsibility, problem solving, and care-giving are encouraged. Clients specifically diagnosed with mental health disorders as well as people with everyday relational, social, emotional, or behavioral problems benefit from working with horses. Personal growth and team building sessions are designed to be evocative, stimulating and a fun learning experience for everyone.

Why Horses?

In equine assisted psychotherapy, horses actively participate in sessions by engaging their own personalities, often in a provocative manner. Because they respond authentically, spontaneously, and without pretension, horses serve as barometers, against which people can measure, and be measured. Tracking a client harboring feelings of fear or anger, a horse will react suspiciously either by moving away from or not cooperating with the person. The horse often picks up on hidden emotions before humans even become aware of them.

Equine assisted psychotherapy focuses on the here-and-now. During activities with horses, facilitators ask participants questions such as “what are you feeling now?” or “what is happening right now?” Behavior patterns and emotional responses are observed and discussed as they occur in the moment. An example would be an adolescent who comes to a session complaining that his parents are too bossy and critical. In the equine experiential session the dynamic is played out in the here-and-now when the family must catch and halter the horses. As they work through the task they argue about how it should be done and the communication issue surfaces in the immediacy of the session.

Psychotherapists acknowledge two phases of this process; [1] the experiencing or activating phase, and [2] the illumination phase. Both are essential for the session to be effective. In the case of the family, as their communication style surfaces the horse mirrors or reflects their emotions through his behavior, either refusing to be caught or moving away from the arguing people. With the help of the facilitator, emotions can be identified and discussed so that the family can better understand the dynamic that goes on between them. The possibility of change comes when the experiential activity of working with the horses is made meaningful through illumination with the help of the facilitator.