Equine Therapy: An Inside Look Claire Dorotik, M.A. Even if your experience with horses is only a passing interest, you have mostlikely felt what those having a long history with horses already know: there is somethingabout horses that is just good for the soul. As the awareness of this powerful effect ofhorses on people has grown, those in the mental health field have also begun to turn tohorses to help with a variety of issues their clients are experiencing. What has grownout of this interest is what is now known as equine facilitated psychotherapy, or equinefacilitated 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 physicaldisabilities. With promising results, the interest in this approach grew, and NARHA soonexpanded to it present size of more than 800 member centers, over 3,500 certified in-structors and 6,500 members. The benefit horses can offer was soon realized to extendbeyond the physical realm, and a number of organizations offering both psychotherapyand learning partnering with horses began to emerge. Among the first of these was theEquine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), which as a nonprofit or-ganization, now offers certifications in either equine assisted psychotherapy, or equineassisted learning. Soon thereafter, linda Kohanov wrote her bestselling book, The Taoof Equus, and with an healthy following, started Epona Equestrian Services. Recog-nized as a pioneer in the field, Kohanov offers workshops, apprenticeships and leader-ship programs for those interested in incorporating the intuitive nature into the personalof professional lives. With these two prominent organizations in place, longtime expertin the filed of equine facilitated psychotherapy, and NARHA professional, Barbara Rec-tor, introduced the healing benefits of horses to Sierra Tucson, an exclusive drug andalcohol addiction center. The first center of its kind to partake in this ground breakingapproach, Sierra Tucson soon also became recognized as a pioneer in the world of ad-diction recovery. With professional respect now turned in her direction, Rector partneredwith NARHA to found the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association, (EFMHA), itselfan innovative organization in it’s quest to provide professional standards for what hadnow become quite a popular field. In 2005, EFMHA presented the first set of nationallyrecognized standards from which equine professionals working in mental health wouldnow have to adhere to. However, as the excitement about horses offering healing to humans grew, and aburgeoning opportunity was realized, many smaller organizations quickly opened theirdoors to offer certifications and workshops as well. Not recognized by NARHA, EA-GALA, or any governing body, these young organizations added to what remains a con-tentious debate about the safety protocols needed to protect the uninformed clients frompotential injury. And the interest in equine therapy has not escaped the educational field withsmaller colleges such as Prescott College, in Arizona, and Bethany College, in WestVirginia both offering certification programs, and in the case of Prescott College, a fullMarriage and Family Therapist licensure track program in equine facilitated psychother-apy, and learning.
Today, although both horse people and mental health professionals have a hostof options in incorporating horse healing into their practice, only NAHRA/EFMHA offernationally recognized standards in the field.An Inside Look: So what is it that really happens in an equine therapy session? Well, just as thereare a number of ways to approach training a horse, several different methods of equineassisted therapy are in existence. Some organization, such as EAGALA prefer the useof 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. Forexample, a client who quickly become frustrated while trying to halter a horse, would beasked if he/she also feels this way when faced with a challenging situation in life. On ofthe most classic of these exercises, used exclusively for clients battling eating disor-ders, is called, “Temptation Alley,” and involves the patient attempting to guide a horsethrough an aisle way lined with hay and grain. As the client struggles to prevent thehorse from eating, a horse professional and psychotherapist, working in concert, willhelp the client draw from this experience, information about how she handles her eatingdisorder. While activities with the horse can be effective learning tools, organizations, suchas EFMHA, and EPONA have shied away from this approach, and instead advocatedthe acceptance of the horse as a sentient being, offering unique and powerful insights ofhis own. To this end, both of these organizations have advocated more educationaround a comprehensive understanding, and accurate interpretation of horse behavior.Although both a horse professional and mental health expert are still recognized as thenorm by these two organizations, the mental health professional should now have amore complete understanding of horse behavior. However, in terms of just what this understanding entails, EFMHA and EPONApart ways. As EPONA promulgate the idea that horses mirror people’s behavior, there-by reflecting back to the client what he/she brings to the session, EFMHA, encouragesunderstanding the horse’s responses from the perspective of a herd animal. What thismeans to EFMHA, is interpreting the horse’s behavior as if it existed in a herd of fellowhorses. For example, a horse circling closely around a client, would be interpreted as itwould a horse circling closely around another, which depending on the physical postureand additional nonverbal behavior of the horse could mean either protection of domi-nance. Clearly, this approach requires the presence of a skilled practitioner well versedin equine behavior, and equine psychology. Despite the disparity in approaches, there is no debate about the efficacy or uti-lization of equine facilitated psychotherapy, and it is now advocated for everything fromeating disorders, depression, anxiety, childhood behavioral problems, corporate leader-ship, 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 whathis behavior might mean among his herd mates. Well, for this, I have offered some tipsto take to the barn.Take To The Barn Tips:
As any activity with horses can be inherently dangerous, be sure to use caution,and work with a safe horse, when attempting any of these activities.Round Pen Play: This activity involves working with your horse loose among a herd of horses.Preferably done in a smaller area -- such as a round pen or small turnout, close the pensecurely, remove your horse’s halter and step back. Notice, does your horse immediate-ly run off, or does he follow you? Giving him some time, watch to see just what his re-sponses are. Does he allow other horses to approach you, or does he want to stay nearyou? Is he disinterested and carefully scanning the ground for scraps of hay? Is he curi-ous about you? Afraid? How does he respond to the other horses with you in the vicini-ty? Interpreting how your horse responds to you among the herd can reveal manythings. If, for example your horse is submissive by nature, and he looks to you for reas-surance, he sees you as a secure base. On the other hand, if your horse is willing to al-low the other horses to come close to you while remaining disinterested, he is most like-ly experiencing a hesitancy in connecting with you, and is respecting a need for space --in relationships -- within you.Who Owns the Space? To attempt this activity, first find something around the barn that you horse is like-ly to spook at. Now holding the lead line loosely, attempt to walk him past it. Does hespook toward you? Does he force you to move out of your space? Or is he careful not tostep on you even though afraid? As for horses, space is interpreted as safety, with a protective mother often mov-ing her foal to evade something threatening in the environment, and dominance, with astronger horse refusing to concede space to a weaker one, a horse that spooks towardyou, forcing you out of your space, could mean either he feels the need to ensure hisown safety when with you, or he sees you as a weaker member of the herd, from whichhe will not give space. On the other hand, if your horse is respectful of your spacewhen spooked, he likely sees you as safe, and strong. While you have probably experienced the therapeutic effects of “escaping to thebarn,” on numerous occasions, perhaps by looking a little deeper at your horse’s re-sponse to you, you can learn just what you might be under the surface. And maybe, youwill uncover just what you were running from.Follow up Links:Certified Therapy Horse Associationhttp://ctha.us/Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Associationhttp://www.eagala.org/
North American Riding for the Handicapped Associationhttp://www.narha.orgEquine Facilitated Mental Health Associationhttp://www.narha.orgAmerican Hippotherapy Associationhttp://www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org/Bethany Collegehttp://www.bethanywv.edu/index.php?cID=4859Prescott Collegehttp://www.prescott.edu/academics/map/CounselingandPsychologyEquineAssistedMen-talHealth.htmlEpona Equestrian Serviceshttp://www.taoofequus.comClaire Dorotik, M.A. is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma, weightloss, eating disorders, addictions, and dual diagnosis. Claire utilizes equine facilitated psy-chotherapy from a psychoanalytic perspective to offer clients a unique method to understandthemselves. 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, ONTHE BACK OF A HORSE: Harnessing the healing Power of the Human-EquineBond, NO SECRET SO CLOSE: A True Story of a Father’s Murder, A Moth-er’s Betrayal, A Family Torn Apart, and The Horses That Turned It All Around, andALL KIDS ARE BORN THIN: A Parent’s Guide To Understanding and Prevent-ing Childhood Obesity, are now available on Amazon Kindle. Further information onClaire, or her upcoming books, can be found at www.clairedorotik.com, or www.greathorse-books.com.