“Let a horse whisper in your ear and breathe on your heart. You will never regret it”. ~ Author unknown
What is Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?
Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) has been developed by incorporating horses into the therapeutic process. It is a team approach between a psychologist and a horse behaviour specialist, working with clients and horses to address the client’s therapeutic goals. EAP is not a form of riding; interactions with the horse take place on the ground, alongside the horse.
Through EAP, clients are able to learn about themselves and their relationships with others, by partaking in activities with the horses. Each EAP session has a planned and specific objective and is tailored to the client’s needs, thus making the therapy valuable and insight orientated. The horse essentially mirrors the client’s process during the session which allows for rich therapeutic metaphors. After the activity, the client and the psychologist process the client’s: thoughts; emotions; actions; and patterns of behaviour. This feedback is then related to the client’s life and relationships and more effective patterns and options for change are explored.
This EAP approach is non-threatening for the client. It is an action and experiential (in the moment) based psychotherapy and assists the client to change and achieve self-growth. Horses are able to transcend human defence mechanisms and barriers.
EAP allows for immediate and honest feedback from the horses (see why horses). This provides the client with a here and now experience and a greater understanding of their own impact upon others. Clients can develop insight into their lives and develop new perspectives. This increased awareness opens the door for change in the client’s understanding of their self, as well as their relationship with others.
What can be treated with EAP?
It is beneficial for a variety of difficulties, including:
- Eating disorders
- Stress management
- Couple or marital difficulties
- Effective problem solving skills
- Increasing self-awareness
- Team building
- Assertiveness skills
- Family conflict
- Empowerment, confidence and self-esteem building
- Effective expression of needs
- Grief and loss
- Effective boundary setting skills
- Effective communication skills
- Improving social awareness and skills
Who can be treated with EAP?
EAP is beneficial to most clients (even those who are afraid of horses), including:
- Groups (team building, including corporate)
What are the expected benefits from EAP sessions?
The benefits of EAP are numerous:
- EAP’s main benefit is to promote change from dysfunctional patterns, to successful ones that increase insight and flexibility in order to cope with daily life.
- EAP sessions provide a non-threatening, motivating and learning environment.
- Through working with horses, it is easier to break defence barriers by focusing on activities with the horses in a non-judgemental environment.
- EAP teaches: empathy, unconditional positive regard and patience which can then be used by the client in their own interactional style and in improving their own relationships.
- An opportunity to practice new skills for use in everyday life and contexts.
- EAP increases self-esteem and offers a sense of empowerment.
- The activities are designed to enhance problem solving skills and effective communication.
- One learns to build trust in their relationships which subsequently increases insight and awareness into how one impacts upon others.
Why does EAP use horses?
Therapeutic animals are soothing for most clients and offer a less threatening therapeutic environment. They are able to build the bridge between client and therapist interaction in a non-threatening and safe manner.
Research proves that working with therapeutic animals has a positive impact on clients. They help decrease depression, alleviate anxiety, and decrease aggressive behaviour in clients.
Therapeutic animals also offer positive physiological effects in humans, such as: lowering blood pressure, lowering heart rates, lowering cholesterol levels and decreasing stress responses. It is the horse in particular that can enhance a client’s opportunity for self-exploration, awareness and growth.
Horses, like humans, find comfort in their herd and being social. Horses connect when under stress and operate in a stable support system that protects them as prey animals from predators. Horses are very effective teachers for humans. Horses are considered to be masters at relationships. They have a natural ability to find the perfect balance in a relationship, yet be independent, whilst still functioning in a cohesive group with the other members. Horses can adapt to social and environmental changes. They can function efficiently when out of their comfort zones. This is an important skill for the client to learn and practice, to enable meaningful and balanced interpersonal relationships and interactions.
Horses do not lie. Their communication and interactions are transparent. They are congruent in their behaviour and do not separate how they feel from how they act. The horses’ very survival is based on being able to accurately interpret and read the environment. They use these same skills to understand and read the client and the client’s behaviour. If the client is not being genuine the horse will react. A horse is sensitive to a human’s physiological responses, such as: increased sweating; increased breathing; or heart rate etc. Immediate and clear feedback from the horse’s behaviour about the client’s behaviour in the environment will aid the client to work through their genuine thoughts, feelings and corresponding behaviours; in order to function optimally as individuals and in relationships.
Who forms the EAP team?
The team consists of: the psychologist; the horse specialist; and the horse/s.
All members of the team are bound by the same therapeutic principles as traditional therapy, including confidentiality.