Although I have never blogged about it before, some of you may know that I am a therapist at an agency that works with victims of domestic violence. One of the coolest things I am able to do in my therapy practice is a modality known as equine assisted psychotherapy.
This intervention is effective on so many different levels with clients, and has also been shown to be beneficial in helping to rehabilitate horses who have had traumatic experiences themselves. I believe in this modality 100% and have seen over and over again not only how effective it is for clients but also for the horses they work with. So what is it and how does it work? This will be the first of several blogs I will write on the subject.
Part One: What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?
In my work I use the EAGALA model of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). With the EAGALA model all of the work is ground-based. The clients never ride the horses but do get up close and personal with them from the ground. The treatment team consists of three parts: the mental health professional (MH), the equine specialist (ES), and the horses. It is the job of the MH to make sure that the humans are physically and emotionally safe and to watch for how they interact with the horses. The ES makes sure that the horses are physically and emotionally safe and also watches for the interaction between the horses and clients. I believe that this is the most ethical model of using animals in therapy. It is also a good model for our clients to see that if a horse is having a bad day (i.e. the animal is emotionally dysregulated) he/she doesn’t have to participate that day. Everyone, including the animal, gets to be safe and be treated respectfully.
We usually begin a session by talking with clients about safety from the perspective of a horse. A horse is a prey animal. In the wild, horses are constantly scanning their environment to be on the look-out for predators. Therefore, they are very sensitive to movement, danger, and the energy exchange between human and horse. If a client is fearful, the horse will sense this and react to it in some way, just as they will if the client is angry or depressed. Over the years my ES partner and I have seen horses react in ways that we never could have predicted, but this has always been exactly what the client needed in that moment.
Horses keep themselves safe in one of three ways. When they feel threatened the first course of action will be to run away. If this is not possible the other two options are to bite or kick. Humans have this same flight, fight, or freeze response. We talk to our clients about their emotional safety and make sure that they know it is always okay to take care of themselves. If they feel unsafe, they can leave the arena or take a time-out at any time. This may sound like common sense to most of us, but for many of our clients it is the first time they have been given permission and actually encouraged to take care of their own needs. This can be a very empowering thought for them.
This sensitivity to energy is only one of the reasons that working with horses is so powerful for clients. Many of our clients have never had the opportunity to be around horses. Although they love them and think they are beautiful, many times they are frightened by the sheer size and power of the animal. We work with clients to help them learn to ground themselves emotionally before they begin to work with the horse. The ability to be able to be near, touch, feed treats, and work with the horse without fear goes toward building self-esteem in the client. They leave knowing that they have conquered a significant fear which helps them begin to think about other areas of their lives where they have feared to be their genuine selves or to try something different. They begin to feel empowered to be able to change a situation that might not be working for them.
In my next post, I will introduce you to the four-legged members of our treatment team.
If you're gonna get in the saddle, you'd better be ready for the ride.
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