Equine Therapy: An Inside Look
Claire Dorotik, M.A.
Even if your experience with horses is only a passing interest, you have most likely felt what those having a long history with horses already know: there is something about horses that is just good for the soul. As the awareness of this powerful effect of horses on people has grown, those in the mental health field have also begun to turn to horses to help with a variety of issues their clients are experiencing. What has grown out of this interest is what is now known as equine facilitated psychotherapy, or equine facilitated learning.
A Short History
As early as 1969, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) recognized the physically therapeutic impact of riding for those with physical disabilities. With promising results, the interest in this approach grew, and NARHA soon expanded to it present size of more than 800 member centers, over 3,500 certified instructors and 6,500 members. The benefit horses can offer was soon realized to extend beyond the physical realm, and a number of organizations offering both psychotherapy and learning partnering with horses began to emerge. Among the first of these was the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), which as a nonprofit organization, now offers certifications in either equine assisted psychotherapy, or equine assisted learning. Soon thereafter, linda Kohanov wrote her bestselling book, The Tao of Equus, and with an healthy following, started Epona Equestrian Services. Recognized as a pioneer in the field, Kohanov offers workshops, apprenticeships and leadership programs for those interested in incorporating the intuitive nature into the personal of professional lives. With these two prominent organizations in place, longtime expert in the filed of equine facilitated psychotherapy, and NARHA professional, Barbara Rector, introduced the healing benefits of horses to Sierra Tucson, an exclusive drug and alcohol addiction center. The first center of its kind to partake in this ground breaking approach, Sierra Tucson soon also became recognized as a pioneer in the world of addiction recovery. With professional respect now turned in her direction, Rector partnered with NARHA to found the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association, (EFMHA), itself an innovative organization in it’s quest to provide professional standards for what had now become quite a popular field. In 2005, EFMHA presented the first set of nationally recognized standards from which equine professionals working in mental health would now have to adhere to.
However, as the excitement about horses offering healing to humans grew, and a burgeoning opportunity was realized, many smaller organizations quickly opened their doors to offer certifications and workshops as well. Not recognized by NARHA, EAGALA, or any governing body, these young organizations added to what remains a contentious debate about the safety protocols needed to protect the uninformed clients from potential injury.
And the interest in equine therapy has not escaped the educational field with smaller colleges such as Prescott College, in Arizona, and Bethany College, in West Virginia both offering certification programs, and in the case of Prescott College, a full Marriage and Family Therapist licensure track program in equine facilitated psychotherapy, and learning.
Today, although both horse people and mental health professionals have a host of options in incorporating horse healing into their practice, only NAHRA/EFMHA offer nationally recognized standards in the field.
An Inside Look:
So what is it that really happens in an equine therapy session? Well, just as there are a number of ways to approach training a horse, several different methods of equine assisted therapy are in existence. Some organization, such as EAGALA prefer the use of recognized exercises or activities to be performed with the horse, which purportedly, provide the client with an experience from which a metaphor for life can be drawn. For example, a client who quickly become frustrated while trying to halter a horse, would be asked if he/she also feels this way when faced with a challenging situation in life. On of the most classic of these exercises, used exclusively for clients battling eating disorders, is called, “Temptation Alley,” and involves the patient attempting to guide a horse through an aisle way lined with hay and grain. As the client struggles to prevent the horse from eating, a horse professional and psychotherapist, working in concert, will help the client draw from this experience, information about how she handles her eating disorder.
While activities with the horse can be effective learning tools, organizations, such as EFMHA, and EPONA have shied away from this approach, and instead advocated the acceptance of the horse as a sentient being, offering unique and powerful insights of his own. To this end, both of these organizations have advocated more education around a comprehensive understanding, and accurate interpretation of horse behavior. Although both a horse professional and mental health expert are still recognized as the norm by these two organizations, the mental health professional should now have a more complete understanding of horse behavior.
However, in terms of just what this understanding entails, EFMHA and EPONA part ways. As EPONA promulgate the idea that horses mirror people’s behavior, thereby reflecting back to the client what he/she brings to the session, EFMHA, encourages understanding the horse’s responses from the perspective of a herd animal. What this means to EFMHA, is interpreting the horse’s behavior as if it existed in a herd of fellow horses. For example, a horse circling closely around a client, would be interpreted as it would a horse circling closely around another, which depending on the physical posture and additional nonverbal behavior of the horse could mean either protection of dominance. Clearly, this approach requires the presence of a skilled practitioner well versed in equine behavior, and equine psychology.
Despite the disparity in approaches, there is no debate about the efficacy or utilization of equine facilitated psychotherapy, and it is now advocated for everything from eating disorders, depression, anxiety, childhood behavioral problems, corporate leadership, and team building.
So perhaps by now you are wondering if you should attempt your own version of “Temptation Alley,” watch to see if your horse is mirroring you, or simply wonder what his behavior might mean among his herd mates. Well, for this, I have offered some tips to take to the barn.
While you have probably experienced the therapeutic effects of “escaping to the barn,” on numerous occasions, perhaps by looking a little deeper at your horse’s response to you, you can learn just what you might be under the surface. And maybe, you will uncover just what you were running from.
Claire Dorotik, M.A. Is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma, weight loss, eating disorders, addictions, and dual diagnosis. Claire utilizes equine facilitated psychotherapy from a psychoanalytic perspective to offer clients a unique method to understand themselves. Claire has written extensively on the topics of the psychology of weight loss, food and substance addictions, trauma, and equine therapy. Her first three books, ON THE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the healing Power of the Human-Equine Bond, NO SECRET SO CLOSE: A True Story of a Father’s Murder, A Mother’s Betrayal, A Family Torn Apart, and The Horses That Turned It All Around, and ALL KIDS ARE BORN THIN: A Parent’s Guide To Understanding and Preventing Childhood Obesity, are now available on Amazon Kindle. Further information on Claire, or her upcoming books, can be found at Welcome to Run With It - developed by Claire Dorotik, or Greatest Horse Books Ever Written.