What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?
EAP is an accredited form of therapy appropriate for individuals, families and groups. EAP engages clients physically, intellectually, emotionally, socially, and soulfully. Horses, due to their unique animal nature, act as mirrors for our inner selves and provide opportunities to develop greater self-awareness, increase self-confidence, gain awareness of dynamics and relational patterns, and engage in activities that require the embodiment of intention and commitment. Because of its intensity and effectiveness, EAP is considered a short-term mode of treatment. This modality can stand on its own as a form of treatment or can be a powerful adjunct in collaboration with other therapeutic work.
Additionally EAP uses the unique abilities of horses and their natural herd dynamics to help participants gain and improve specific life skills. This model is appropriate for both groups and individuals. EAP provides participants with an opportunity to gain insight into how to successfully approach challenges, apply creative thinking and problem solving techniques, improve leadership skills, and practice effective behaviors. It is very effective for leadership skills enhancement, team building, and staff development.
Working with horses is an experiential, holistic (hands on, mind, body, spirit) form of learning that helps participants increase self-awareness, work through emotional blocks, and gain powerful tools for change - no matter what you are going through now, or are trying to work through from the past. It's about getting "you" back.
Why use horses in therapy?
Horses intuit our emotional states and respond accordingly, and therefore we learn the most valuable of lessons: by changing ourselves, the world around us can change.
Unlike humans horses are prey animals. Instinctively, as prey animals, their survival depends on their ability to sense underlying emotional current in their environment. They use their animal wisdom - keen sense of smell, hearing, body awareness, and vigilance - to keep themselves safe. Because they are fully present and without agenda or judgment, they invite us to be the same. It's actually more difficult to not be present around the horse. And this is where the deepest and most effective work transpires.
Horses are powerful messengers that mirror back their direct experience of humans. They are completely congruent and authentic with what they experience – in other words, what they show on the outside matches what they feel on the inside. They don’t deny or mask their feelings and our masks/personas don’t fool them.
Like humans, horses are herd animals and rely on each other for safety and survival. Whether clients are engaged in individual or group activities, interacting with horses provides an opportunity to work on dynamics related to relationships, isolation, asking for help, and one’s role in the human herd. Areas that are commonly addressed include boundaries, assertiveness, trust, powerlessness, and frustration tolerance.
The Learning is the Doing
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is an experiential and short-term approach for real and lasting change. It is a unique opportunity that goes beyond the traditional to restore balance in people's lives while teaching problem solving, leadership, clear communication, goal setting, and social skills.
Understanding the patterns that keep you stuck is only the beginning. The EAP approach gives you the time and place to discover solutions. Participants have the opportunity to:
· Learn to take responsibility, confront situations, and recognize non-verbal communication
· Apply creative thinking and problem solving techniques
· Gain insight into how to successfully approach relationships, challenges, and communication.
The process begins by interacting with the horses, then identifying and reflecting with the therapist on what transpired. Participants learn and practice new strategies to achieve goals outside the arena. Talking is minimal as the horse provides critical feedback that no human can offer. The equine therapist helps clients explore their interactions with the horses and the metaphors that inevitably emerge, bringing about insight and change.
In this day an age of the faster the better, of workaholics, of new technology every minute, of traffic, deadlines, and most importantly productivity... when do we humans get to stop and ask ourselves "how am I feeling?" Or when making decisions, how often do we stop and check in to see what our "gut" or instinct is saying? We spend so much time in our heads, and are doing, doing, doing without taking a moment to stop and just "Be". Sometimes the most effective way to get things done is to get out of our heads and drop into our bodies. Through bodily awareness we can access our ancient instinctual wisdom to help us navigate through the concrete jungles of our world. Simply put, horses can help us to “get in touch” with our deepest inner self in a way and at a level that we have never before been able to achieve.
Because horses are fully present and without agenda or judgment, they invite us to be the same. It's actually more difficult to not be present around the horses. And this is where the deepest and most effective work transpires, the work of Embodied Mindfulness.
Embodied Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of our bodies, aware in the moment, and present with ourselves and others. When we begin to practice Embodied Mindfulness we are no longer at the mercy of our old habits or the pressure we feel from others to do things their way. By becoming aware of our animal nature and innate drive for survival we develop the capacity to respond with "choice" versus "reacting" to the pressures of life. Working with the horses can help us become better humans. From them we learn to be present and aware of our inner world and how it is projected and perceived by our external environment. With this awareness and understanding, it is amazing what we can accomplish in our lives and relationships.
For both humans and horses, equanimity in stressful circumstances is an essential leadership skill. Equanimity is a state of mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper. There are essentially two different aspects of equanimity - observation and seeing with understanding. The term Mindsight, coined by Harvard Psychology Professor Dr. Dan Siegel, is grounded in these concepts and refers to the ability to perceive our mind and the mind of others such that we can “ ‘name and tame’ the emotions we are experiencing, rather than being overwhelmed by them.” In his book Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation, Siegel (2011) describes mindsight as using three skills that enable us to remain open, observant, and reflective about our selves and others:
- Openness - be receptive to whatever comes into our awareness and don’t cling to ideas, let go of expectations and receive things as they are;
- Observation - perceive the self even as we are experiencing an event and be able to disengage from automatic behaviors;
- Objectivity - awareness of awareness - able to have a thought or feeling and not be swept away by it, discernment.
Horses embody equanimity and are consummate teachers of mindsight. Effectively interacting with horses requires that we be open, observant, and objective. The dynamics that play out in the arena with the herd inevitably mirror dynamics and issues of participants’ lives. And the best part? With horses we are able to shift our awareness and behavior in the moment and receive immediate feedback about our state of being.
A great example of this occurred recently when a group of four individuals came to together in an attempt to connect up with a horse and move him across the arena into an area they had labeled “courage” without using a halter or a leadrope. At first the horse wouldn’t budge, then the horse began to move chaotically all over the arena - going anywhere except for where they wanted him to go. After trying many different things, the participants agreed to center their energy individually and then collectively. As they came together with focus and intention, the horse calmed down and walked with them all the way to their place of “courage”.
Similarly, effective movement and interaction in life requires that we center ourselves first and then communicate with clarity and intention, and compassion. It is truly amazing how we can shift ourselves and the world around us when we cultivate equanimity.
What mental health issues can be addressed with EAP?
From a practice based evidence perspective EAP can be used to treat behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, communication needs, addictions, bereavement, and any presenting issue that is trauma based. Children who have suffered abuse and adults who suffer from unresolved childhood abuse can benefit greatly from EAP. Many patients with eating disorders, PTSD, sexual disorders, personality disorders, or somatoform disorders have experienced trauma, which makes it difficult for them to trust others and feel safe. Patients might be resistant to opening up to a therapist and expressing their feelings or might not be skilled in verbal communication. EAP can serve as a first step in helping individuals break through these barriers and become more comfortable with the thought of trusting again. EAP can often make it possible for highly resistant and oppositional populations to engage in therapy. Children, adolescent, and adult clients with ODD, Conduct disorder, addictions, and other antisocial tendencies will often resist traditional therapy and the therapist but actively engage during EAP.
EAP, as any other therapy model that utilizes animals, is also highly effective in facilitating the breaking down of treatment barriers in other treatment resistant populations as well. Clients who suffer from neurological damage or deficiencies or clients who are symptomatically predispositioned to resist engaging with another person will often engage in treatment, even after other previous attempts with more “standard” therapies have proven unsuccessful. Children and adults in the Autism spectrum can benefit greatly from EAP and can make both rapid and substantial therapeutic progress. Also, clients who have suffered neurological trauma such as traumatic brain injury, brain surgery, stroke, paralysis, dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other age related neurological effects can benefit from EAP. The relatively new science of neuroplasticity has recently shown the brain’s incredible ability to heal itself, EAP can help in the stimulation and facilitation of that process. Further, client populations who have physical or body trauma or impairments often have emotional issues that stem from those impairments. Clients with sight impairments, hearing or speech impairments, paralysis, amputees, Muscular Dystrophy, Cerebral Palsy, and many other physical issues can make significant physical and emotional progress by utilizing EAP.
Actually, the potential list of clients that cannot benefit from EAP is much shorter than those who can. Essentially, clients who have specific allergies or clients who simply do not like animals would be challenged in their ability to benefit from EAP. Other than those populations EAP can open up a world of possibilities for clients.
What Does the Existing Research Suggest?
Today, psychologists stress treatments whose effectiveness has been extensively researched and substantiated. The American Psychological Association calls these treatments evidence-based practice in psychology (EBPP). “The purpose of EBPP is to promote effective psychological practice and enhance public health by applying empirically supported principles of psychological assessment, case formulation, therapeutic relationship and intervention,” according to Rob Heffer, Ph.D., clinical child psychologist and clinical associate professor at Texas A&M University.
With EAP, however, scientific results regarding its usefulness are lacking. Anecdotal evidence, such as case studies, has shown benefits, however. In their comprehensive book about equine therapy, Horse Sense and the Human Heart: What Horses Can Teach Us About Trust, Bonding, Creativity, and Spirituality, McCormick and McCormick (1997) describe various case studies where young people with severe behavioral problems were helped by working with horses.
To date, just a handful of quantitative studies have been published. Klontz and colleagues (2007) looked at psychological distress and well-being among 31 participants, ages 23 to 70. Findings from self-report questionnaires revealed reductions in psychological distress and less psychological symptoms. Participants reported being more independent and self-supported, better able to live fully in the present and less troubled with regrets, resentment and guilt. However, the researchers noted limitations like the absence of a control group and a randomly selected sample.
In a recent pilot study, researchers explored EAP’s effectiveness in 63 children who witnessed violence between their parents and experienced child abuse (Schultz, Remick-Barlow & Robbins, 2007). After an average of 19 sessions, all children showed improved scores on the Children’s Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF), which measures psychological, social and school functioning for six- to 17-year-olds. Limitations included a self-selected sample, no control group and the use of one measure.
Other research with at-risk adolescents has produced mixed results. While earlier studies (Bowers & MacDonald, 2001; MacDonald & Cappo, 2003 as cited in Ewing, MacDonald, Taylor & Bowers, 2007) found a decrease in depression and increase in self-esteem, recent research didn’t show any significant changes in 10- to 13-year-olds in a nine-week equine program (Ewing et al., 2007). However, the authors presented several case studies that suggested the program was helpful. Speculating on the nonsignificant findings, the authors pointed to the program’s short duration; the devastating changes many of the kids experienced in their family life during the study; and the children’s severe disorders.
Why The Lack of Research?
It’s natural to wonder why there is a shortage of published studies on EAP. Experts suggest it may be because experience-based therapy, such as storytelling or art therapy, is difficult to quantify. In other words, the questionnaires that psychologists typically use to measure a treatment’s effectiveness might not capture the changes or positive benefits of EAP. EAP also is a relatively new form of therapy.
The information presented above was adapted and compiled from the following sources:
Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy: Healing Therapy or Just Hype?
The website of Stand InBalance, Inc. at www.inbalancewithhorses.com