Having spent every summer of my developmental years working on a large family owned cattle ranch, I grew up with horses. This experience with these magnificent animals, taken together with my training and experience in psychology, has enabled me to set up one of the first certified Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) practices in the Southeast region of the U.S. I continue to own and train a small herd of therapeutic horses that are stabled at a facility that I designed and had built for the express purposes of practicing EAP.
EAP is an emerging field in which horses are used to help people of all ages improve in areas such as problem solving, leadership, anger management, self discipline, interpersonal communication, and self confidence. Not all programs or individuals who use horses practice EAP. For one, licensed clinical professionals need to be involved in these activities for them to be considered “psychotherapy.” The focus of EAP is not riding or horsemanship. In fact, all of the EAP activities I use in my practice take place on the ground.
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, behaviors, 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.
I am often asked, “Why horses? “Why not other animals?”
Horses are large and powerful, which creates a natural opportunity for some clients to overcome fear and develop confidence. The size and power of the horse are naturally intimidating to many people. Accomplishing a task involving the horse, in spite of those fears, creates confidence and provides for wonderful metaphors when dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations in life.
Horses are very much like humans in that they are social animals. They have defined roles within their herds. In most cases they would rather be with their peers.
Horses have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods. An approach that seems to work with one horse, does not necessarily work with another. At times, they seem stubborn and defiant. They like to have fun. In other words, horses provide vast opportunities for metaphorical learning. Using metaphors, in discussion or activity, is an effective technique when working with even the most challenging individual and/or interpersonal problems.
Most importantly, horses have the ability to mirror exactly what human body language is telling them. Some clients have said things like “The horse is stubborn,” or “The horse doesnt like me.” However, after some time with the horse they quickly learn the that if they change themselves, the horses respond differently. This is especially helpful for couples who are focussing on changing their partner instead of working on themselves.
All said, the reason I’ve chosen to offer EAP in addition to traditional therapy is because it simply provides me with more options in both identifying and treating individual, relationship and family.