A View of Equine Therapy by Martin Sloman

A View of Equine Therapy

As promised at the last meeting I thought I would just pen a few thoughts about our experience of Equine Therapy, which we are now assessing as a possible therapeutic option for psychological treatment.

I could try and explain the therapy for you from my own somewhat limited knowledge but I thought a better explanation might come from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) web site (http://www.eagala.org/index.html) which reveals:

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

What is EAP?  incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning. It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals. Because of its intensity and effectiveness, it is considered a short-term, or “brief” approach.

EAP is experiential in nature. This means that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing (or discussing) feelings, behaviours, and patterns. This approach has been compared to the ropes courses used by therapists, treatment facilities, and human development courses around the world. But EAP has the added advantage of utilizing horses, dynamic and powerful living beings.

Not all programs or individuals who use horses practice Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. For one, licensed clinical professionals need to be involved for it to be considered “psychotherapy”. The focus of EAP is not riding or horsemanship. The focus of EAP involves setting up ground activities involving the horses which will require the client or group to apply certain skills. Non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking and problem-solving, leadership, work, taking responsibility, teamwork and relationships, confidence, and attitude are several examples of the tools utilized and developed by EAP.

EAP is a powerful and effective therapeutic approach that has an incredible impact on individuals, youth, families, and groups. EAP addresses a variety of mental health and human development needs including behavioural issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs.

So What Did we Do and how did we Rate it?

Well, we did a kind of team building event that allowed us to try out the EAGALA model for ourselves, working on set exercises with the horses.

It is important to remember that the horses (and the donkey) we interacted with were not tethered and free to come and go within the arena as they wanted. Therefore, they could choose to engage with us humans or do something else.

Another thing worth pointing out is that one or two of the group (myself included) were more than a little nervous horses in general. Up close, they really are rather large you know!

As for the exercises, well the first one was easy enough – we just had to stand outside the arena and observe the horses and try and make some kind of sense of how they interacted with each other. One of the (larger) horses had been recently gelded (I’m still wincing at the thought of this) and was demonstrating some slightly more attentive behaviours to one of the smaller ponies. My thoughts at this point were “That’s a very large horse, who’s quite active, I’m not sure I want to get in there with him!” – or slightly more direct words to that effect!

The other exercises we did indeed mean going in with the horses and being with them engaging in two more set exercises encouraged by the two EAGALA therapists carefully watching over proceedings.

I won’t go into detail about the tasks themselves, just in case you get the opportunity of doing something like this yourselves. However, what I will say is that in the space of about an hour all my fear about being up close and personal with these amazing animals had all but disappeared. My colleague, who apparently had the bigger fear, was presenting as some kind of horse expert by the end of the session with all her fears apparently vanished!

Team Building

As a team building exercise it had great value as it highlighted the dynamics of the team quite dramatically (and quickly). A horse’s reaction to a person or a group of people is both immediate and genuine with no hidden agenda. You have no choice but to suck it up and accept.

I found the whole event quite a powerful experience on a number of levels and was greatly encouraged by its potential therapeutic value. My feeling is that the greatest outcomes may be for the kind of people where engaging (sometimes repeatedly) with traditional services has been of little benefit. Results may be achieved here that may not be possible elsewhere.