Equines Assisting Therapists and Therapies

I have a small private practice of doing Equine Assisted Psychotherapy at my farm, the Red Barn Farm. My co-facilitators and Herd included Comanche and Jupiter. Equine therapies have several different names and this may mean they offer different types of services, however, there is often overlaps as well.

Examples are:

  • EAP – Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
  • EAT – Equine Assisted Therapy
  • EFP – Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy
  • EFT – Equine Facilitated Therapy
  • HAT – Horse Assisted Therapy
  • Therapeutic Horseback riding
  • Therapeutic Riding

There are different organizations that certify therapists with different emphasis in the type of work they do with humans and horses. Let me describe a couple of them for you. The certification I received was from a company called the O.K. Corral Series founded by Greg Kersten. Interesting to note, Mr. Kersten was also one of the founders of Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), another organization that currently certifies equine therapists. For the purpose of this article the focus on clinical examples will be on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy based on the OK Corral philosophy with some of my own examples of efficacy from personal experience. The O.K. Corral Series educates, promotes, and supports professionals in the practice of authentic equine-assisted work. Authentic equine-assisted work honors and integrates natural horse and herd behavior as a model for human mental and emotional health using the equine-assisted philosophies developed by Greg Kersten, Founder of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. When using the EAGALA Model, all session activities must be performed with the client remaining on the ground, not mounted on the horse.

Another very large organization that certifies equine therapists was called North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). This organization is now named PATH – Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. You may meet clinicians who have this focus. This is one of the older organizations which began with hippotherapy which focused on the movement of the horse and its benefit therapeutically to individuals with physical disabilities such as Muscular dystrophy, Cerebral palsy, brain injuries and amputations. PATH now has a subgroup referred to as EAAT, or Equine Assessed Activity and Therapy. You may also hear of NARHA’s Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association, founded in 1996, which was directed toward helping individuals with anxiety, depression and autism.

There are a few local farms in the central Vermont area that provide therapeutic equine activities. The certification of their clinicians may vary. One such farm is Vermont Horse Assisted Therapy (VHAT) at Pease Farm in Middlesex Vermont. Sarah Seidman, the founder of VHAT, is a Level III Centered Riding® and a PATH-certified instructor who has worked with children and horses for over 40 years.

Here is a brief description of Sarah’s work:

The foundation of her teaching lies in creating a positive, energetic and focused environment where students can safely learn the elements of horsemanship on patient, well-mannered school horses. This supportive approach is especially vital to empowering riders with disabilities and affecting their personal growth. https://vhat.org

Rhythm of the Rein is a farm in Marshfield which also offers equine therapy. Here is their mission statement:

Our mission is to use Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) to enhance the well-being of individuals with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges in the central Vermont and the Northeast Kingdom. http://rhythmoftherein.org/

Now I would like to talk about the nature of my work using horses as co-facilitators in conducting psychotherapy. What is it about using horses that is so effective for some individuals?

Here are some of the reasons we use horses. Size of the horse is maybe one reason. Remember they come in all sizes! My co-facilitator Jupiter, Jupe for short, is a miniature horse and weighs about 350 pounds. Comanche weighs 1100 pounds. An individuals’ empowerment comes with the ability to interact with a large animal and learn how to relate to a large animal. Another feature unique to horses is Binocular Vision. Horses have a different type of vision. This allows the horse to have enormous peripheral vision. This has literal and metaphorical assets for humans. To be aware of one’s surroundings contributes to safety and may be a model for clients to begin to experience less anxiety and more centeredness.

Horses are gifted nonverbal communicators as well. Communication among horses is almost completely non-verbal. This supports the process of clients becoming more aware of their own body and how they communicate through body language and how others communicate with them also. This is used as a therapeutic tool in endless examples. In therapy I help clients become aware of how to communicate in horse “language”. Clients become more aware of their own body language through this process, and it can really help someone become more self-aware. How might this be helpful to someone who has experienced physical or emotional violence? People who have experienced violence may have heightened anxiety and reactions to body language. Helping them become self-aware and aware of their non-verbal interactions with others is an excellent tool for building mindfulness and relaxation training practices.

Horses also function in groups with herd dynamics and herd behaviors. Natural herd behaviors may help humans better learn how to cope with everyday life in natural and healthy ways. Watching and understanding the dynamics of the herd can translate to understanding the dynamics within our personal relationships. Horses are capable of providing consistent unconditional regard. For some clients, healing is experiencing a relationship without judgement and criticism. The emphasis is on trust with the horse, and this can be very therapeutic for many clients. The therapist must also support this process, which is an example of the collaboration of the therapist with the equine. This helps the child build a bridge toward a therapeutic alliance with the therapist which can be very difficult to do for victims of trauma.

In OK Corral method, the client and therapist may use grooming the horse as an ice breaker. “This horse likes me!” The description given to the horse, by the client, may be a safe object for projection. For some humans who have a difficult time developing relationships, a relationship with an equine may be a great place to start trusting!
I hope this has been interesting for you. Let’s head to the horses now!

Barbara Noordsij APRN, DNP, PMHNP, BC

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