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Horses Are Therapeutic-But Equine Assisted Therapy Is More Powerful than Just Making Us Feel Good
Although I’ve always known about Equine Assisted Therapy modality, my experience with horses led me to become more interested in it. While taking riding lessons a few years ago, I realized that I enjoy spending time with horses even more than riding them. As it was great to ride them and feel powerful that this beautiful huge animal listens to my commands, I was even more excited to just hang around and groom them. This brought so much joy and calm to me. All my difficulties in life were easier to manage. This connection with horses would just fill my batteries. I’m sure every horse enthusiast will know what I’m talking about. I realized horses are therapeutic. They make some people feel good. It was much easier to survive an upcoming difficult week at work and long commutes in LA traffic during the upcoming week after visiting my four-legged friends.
I was wondering how I can share this wonderful experience with my clients. After some exploration, I realized that EAGALA model is one of the most recognized standards for psychotherapy with horses for the clients that I serve and the work that I do.
This led me to sign up for a women’s retreat, organized by one of the EAGALA certified therapists. Naturally, I wanted to see how this model works on me as a client prior to taking on the commitment of going through the required training.
The experience was mind blowing. It was way more impactful than just “being therapeutic.” I was amazed how horses were able to enhance my experience in the group. I really enjoyed it and during the two-day retreat, I feel I’ve made so much progress that would potentially take months of individual therapy. I have to say; my life was changed significantly after this retreat. I am currently living an intentional life according to my values accomplishing and working on things that I enjoy. This experience convinced me to sign up for the first available EAGALA training. Here I am now, an EAGALA certified therapist, excited to offer these services to my clients.
How is an EAGALA Equine Assisted Therapy session structured?
The sessions are held in an arena with equines, such as horses, donkeys, or mules (I’ll use the term horses). Horses are a part of the therapeutic team that also includes therapist (MH) and an Equine Specialist (ES). The ES and the therapist collaborate to create activities in the arena based on the client’s therapeutic goals that will enhance the process of therapy and learning. The equine specialist is in charge of observation of the horses, while therapist helps the clients process emotions, become aware, and gain valuable insights during and after the session.
Equine Assisted Therapy is an Experiential Modality that Gives Fast Results
During the workshop, we practiced various activities including meditation and group processing, but the most impactful for me was practice in the arena with horses. At times we would engage in structured activities when we were instructed to perform certain tasks that involved problem-solving, creativity, collaboration, etc. At other times we were instructed to “just be with the horses.” Somehow, it’s hard to explain how the process works. In order to fully understand it, I recommend that you experience it first hand as a client.
Basically, during the workshop, I was able to engage all my senses and try completing some tasks rather than just talking about my emotions, like in regular talk therapy. One of the most prominent things I learned was how I affect others in my relationships. Horses give this kind of feedback right away. What’s interesting, nobody needed to tell me, “maybe you are too forceful, or not assertive enough.” Horses behaviors showed me. They don’t need to please or obey me. They will not have any of my shenanigans.
Horses Teach Us How to Be in Our Bodies During Equine Assisted Therapy Session
When trying to accomplish a task with horses, I could try problem solve, figure out how I can do it, in the most creative and intelligent ways. But, if I was lacking confidence or if I was feeling intimidated, horses would not comply with my attempts to move them from one side of the arena to the other side of the arena for instance. Similarly, if I was pretending to be confident or coming across very forceful, horses would not have it. They feel you more in the moment than you are aware. While you are involved in the task, you forget to look inward. Horses remind us of this. They help us pause and see what’s going inside for us. They enable us to be inside of our bodies. This is a term used to describe when we are able to observe our body sensations, impulses, and emotions. This kind of awareness allows us to understand ourselves better.
Horses Teach Us Relationship Skills and Provide Us with Insight Into How We Affect Others
What struck me the most was learning how I affect others both positively or negatively. Horses would show me this right away. I learned that when I’m forceful or when I’m focused on my own agenda instead of considering others (in this case horses), I don’t get the desired results. I connected this with my life and understood that doing things this way leads to frustration and fraction. When I calm down and communicate my attention in compassionate ways, horses followed. I was able to generalize this to my personal life and apply this in my relationships with people. Horses are amazing teachers of relationships.
They are able to do so because they stay in the moment and are able to observe their emotions. Horses have evolved to be very aware of their surroundings. Their bodies give them cues to how they need to react to the environment. Their survival depends on it. Horses are prey animals. They see us as potential predators as our both eyes are placed in front of our faces. So, if they sense something wrong, they are not having it.
Horses Show Us When We Are Fake or Out of Touch
When they observe that we have emotions that aren’t aligned with our actions, they get very anxious, and they want nothing to do with us. For instance, if we have a task to get a horse to a certain place, but we are thinking about an argument with our partner, we will not be centered and our actions will not be in sync with our emotions. We may try to lure the horse by saying sweet words, and so on. But they will sense our tumultuous emotions that stem from the arguments before we even arrived at the arena. Horses will sense this incompatibility, and our actions will cause them to run away. On the other hand, when we are focused with clear intent on what we are doing, horses respond by following us.
Horses Show Us Compassion
Similarly, if we were in touch with our emotions and exhibiting sadness or vulnerability due to the argument with our partner, they may approach us and try to comfort us. They are highly social, and they depend on each other. These are examples of how horses help us learn many valuable skills quickly.
How do we utilize horses in therapy? Do we ride them in a session?
Horses don’t shame us when they provide us with this feedback during the Equine Assisted Therapy sessions. Their feedback is immeasurable in our work with clients in therapy. Horses’ responses in session often become a symbol for how our family, coworkers, or partners respond to us. They can be a symbol of relationships with significant people as well as relationships with various challenges, goals, or obstacles in life, such as addiction or feeling stuck.
As described above, this work enables us to create valuable experiences that will provide clients with special opportunity to experience successes, failures, challenges, and practice functioning in non-threatening situations in the arena unlike in real life.
Each equine has a unique personality. They become powerful metaphors for whatever is needed in the session according to the clients’ goals. Sometimes specific horses are chosen to aid therapeutic process during the session. For instance, the Equine Specialist (ES) may bring a horse that’s constantly attention seeking from the participants in the session, which can help some of the participants learn to set clear boundaries.
We don’t ride horses in the EAGALA Equine Assisted Therapy sessions. We utilize horses as a part of our environment during the session. We allow them just to be themselves. Horses react to our emotional states and provide feedback, which clients interpret as it works for them. In our sessions, horses can become a metaphor for just about anything that we are working on. We can label a horse to be a challenge we are going through, a goal we are trying to achieve, or a person that’s important in our life.
Equine Assisted Therapy is very powerful work because clients are able to learn and practice different skills while performing some activities in the session. This significantly enhances learning. When talking about “skills’ we are talking about skills that we learn throughout life or while going to therapy, such as social skills, communication, how we come across to others, setting intent, assertiveness, etc. These are not skills related to horsemanship or how to tie a rope for instance. Similarly, we are referring to “learning” as changes in the brain that happen throughout the therapeutic process with horses that allow us to change our lives.
What Kind of Work Can Be Done Utilizing Equine Assisted Therapy and Learning?
Equines can be used in individual, family, and group therapy and workshops. This modality can be used as an aid in regular therapy.
Equine Assisted Learning is an amazing way that you can engage your team members. We can help you reach your goals faster, and your team will enjoy a fun retreat outdoors.