While those familiar to horses may contend that equine therapy has been a long time coming, for people who consider spending time with horses a novel experience, it can seem as if horses have exploded onto the therapeutic scene.
To be sure, the partnering with horses in the pursuit of wellness has now expanded from treatment centers specializing in eating disorders, to addiction recovery centers, and now even “equestrian life coaching.”
Certainly the blossoming of the field has been exciting for horse-people, and offered many therapeutic modalities that were not previously available. On the other hand, clients who may be interested in equine therapy are faced with a multitude of decisions regarding how it is best used, what type of program is most effective, and what to look for in an equine therapy professional.
To clarify these questions, and best inform those intrigued by work with horses, we must begin with defining the original intent of equine therapy.
As equine therapy was born largely from the work of the North American Handicapped Riding Association (NAHRA), whose theoretical orientation adhered strongly to the idea that the incorporation of horses as an adjunctive treatment improved overall therapeutic efficacy, it’s original premise was to enhance the therapeutic efforts that the client might already have underway.
Through engaging with horses, the client would have experiences which could then be explored with his/her primary therapist. The seasoned therapist could then help the client draw metaphors from this experience, and/or trace the interaction between the client and the horse to previous events, challenges, or relationships.
For example, the client may attend an equine therapy session and report back to his/her therapist that the horse “pushed him around.” Now in the presence of a savvy equine professional, and equine therapist working in tandem, the behavior of the horse may be interpreted back to the client.
The equine specialist could essentially disseminate for the client the meaning of a horse “pushing” a person — or pushing another horse, as the behavior should be interpreted from the perspective of a herd animal — and in doing so, describe for the client why the horse may be doing this. However, depending on the orientation of the equine therapy approach, the behavior of the horse may not be interpreted for the client and instead the client may be asked to focus on what he can do differently.
In this case, the equine specialist would not define the behavior of the horse, and, instead, the equine therapist would ask the client how he/she could change the approach to affect a different outcome with the horse. In either instance — whether the client is asked to change his/her behavior with the horse, or the horse’s actions themselves are interpreted for the client leaving him/her free to decide to change — the experiences with the horse lend themselves to further therapeutic exploration with the client’s regular practitioner.
Through the work with the horse, the client having a novel experience with a horse, will most likely learn new information about himself or herself, and the primary therapist will also be armed with more knowledge which can then be used to help direct therapeutic approaches.
In the example given above, the client may have been pushed around by the horse, and then become very angry, which may have been an emotion that did not present in the therapist’s office. From this point, both the therapist and the clien, have a more expansive view of the client, which should then lead to a more comprehensive treatment approach, thanks to the addition of equine therapy.
So while equine therapy can be a very powerful modality for clients, it must be remembered that it’s inception was based upon the premise that it could aid, and not replace, traditional psychotherapy.
Photo by Mike Baird of Morro Bay, California, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.