equine therapy While separate and distinct theoretical approaches have been well recognized in traditional therapy settings for many years, equine therapy has been categorized as experiential from the beginning. Especially for those who are not familiar to the unique modality of healing horses can offer, it has been all too easy to simply place this form of therapy into the same category as rope courses, art therapy, and wilderness courses.

Yet, in classifying equine therapy in this way, not only has the feeling and understanding of the work been stilted, but also the fact that in incorporating horses into the therapeutic dimension, separate theories have evolved, just as with traditional therapy, has been missed.

In the beginning, equine therapy was born from the traditional handicapped riding programs that were the forerunners of what is now known as the North American Handicapped Riding Assoication, or NARHA (www.narha.org). Using this step like approach developed by NARHA, practitioners of equine therapy soon found themselves with a very behavioral model.

Clients were given “exercises” to perform with the horses, while therapists would comment on their behavior with horses, and help them draw parallels to their behavior in the outside world. Then, using the horse as a modicum of practice, clients were encouraged to try different behaviors in order to assess their efficacy.

If the client could get the horse to respond differently, this was considered successful by the therapeutic team. As this behavioral model became popular, the organization known as Equine Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA  (www.eagala.org), was formed to oversee certification of practicing therapists, and horse professionals, as EAGALA called for the uses of both a certified therapist and a horse professional, also certified to conduct equine therapy.

However, soon after EAGALA’s behavioral model emerged from the foundation of NARHA, a woman named Linda Kohanov wrote a best selling book, “The Tao of Equus,” in which she described developing a relationships with horses through becoming more congruent, and thus honest to the horse.

According to Kohanov, her horses could sense when she was incongruent and move away. Yet when horses return to people, Kohanov purported, it is because they are congruent. As this approach gained a healthy following, Kohanov soon formed her organization, EPONA, (www.taoofequus.com) in order to certify and train professionals much in the same way EAGALA does.

The difference, however, lay in the fact that the EPONA model did not include any exercises to be performed with the horse, or behaviors to be assessed. Instead, Kohanov’s methods found their home in a much more experiential model, where clients were encouraged to pay attention to their thoughts, and feelings while utilizing the horse’s responses as a barometer for their own inner workings.

Today, both behavioral and experiential theories of equine therapy exist, although the work lends itself to many different orientations. For example, horses respond almost entirely to what is physiological in both other horses, and humans. It is in fact, through these physiological responses that they manage their communication system. As unconscious motives, drives and feelings have physiological traces within humans, equine therapy could even be performed from a psychodynamic orientation.

So while the theories employed by equine therapy practitioners may vary, and the including horses in the therapeutic a treatment program opens doors to many different orientations, one fact remains — horses can offer a promising new treatment modality.

Photo by Tom Wardill, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.