In the fascinating new field of equine therapy, there are a litany of activities that can be performed with the horse, and amongst these, an even greater number of potentially promising outcomes. While in the majority of the evaluations of these interventions, the focus is on the therapeutic impact on the client, what is often lost is the effect exercises performed in the name of equine therapy may have on the horse
While we know that horses are tremendously hypervigilant animals, much less is known about how it is this state of heightened awareness is resolved.
It is actually through fleeing — often the very thing that scares humans — that the horse keeps himself safe, serving as not only as an adaptive survival response but also as a way to continuously regulate his physiological system, keeping him well prepared to signal future danger.
As part of the ongoing task of demonstrating just what equine therapy is, as well as the scope, outcome expectations, theoretical orientation, and changes in the field, I will be sharing a few glimpses into the human-equine bond. Here is the first:
Thanks to the seminal work of Robert Sapolsky, in “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” we know have a much better understanding of the disparity between the way animals in their natural environment handle stress and the way humans do. As a result of this intensive study, we can also ascertain that both the value of identifying and responding to, the physiological triggers of alarm. And with all that being said, one would not be stretching too far to hypothesize that horses also do not get ulcers. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.
While the concept of rapport is not at all foreign to therapists, counselors and psychologists, for some the notion that horses are equipped with the mental hardware with which to communicate emotionally is pretty tough to swallow.
While relationships can often lead to copious amounts of confusion, frustration, and elation, for most of us, defining the nature of them is actually quite challenging. For one thing, we are the relationship. That is to say that we ourselves, comprise what we are trying to understand. Therefore attempting to understand a relationship that you are a part of is much like trying to develop self awareness without any external input. Well, when it comes to understanding horse and human relationships, the case is much the same.
While the phenomenon of fantasy bonding is now well understood in the therapeutic community, what is much less understood is that of fantasy bonding in horse-human relationships. Under these circumstances, the adult is experiencing the same dynamic of abuse that would be expected in the parent-child relationship where fantasy bonding occurs. That is to say, that the person looks to the horse for comfort, care, nurturance, and warmth, just as a child would a parent. Yet the horse acts in ways that endanger the person. He may, for example, bite, kick, buck, or run off with his human companion. However, like a child who denies his caretaker’s abuse and forms a fantasy bond that allows him to disconnect from the abuse and foster the fantasy of a nurturing caregiver, the person who forms a fantasy bond with the horse also denies both the maltreatment by the horse, as well as, the potential for dange
In the field of equine therapy, the general consensus among the major certifying organizations (NAHRA, EFMHA, EAGALA, and CEIP) is that the therapist who is certified to do equine therapy should always work with an equine professional. And while there is much debate over the training needed to warrant a therapist qualified to perform psychotherapy with the help of horses, the controversy over what training, experience and knowledge a horse professional should have is not as great.