equine therapyWhile most traditional therapists become quite adept at sitting with a client, identifying a diagnosis, and formulating a treatment plan, working with a horse to achieve the same gains can present a problem when it comes to developing the needed treatment plan.

As equine therapy includes an animal, whose behavior is often unpredictable, and is, after all, an independent being who may or may not want any part of the desired therapeutic activities, designing activities to push the client forward is not as straight forward as, say, challenging cognitive distortions. Does this mean that an equine therapy treatment plan is not possible?

Well, to be sure, there are practicing specialists in equine therapy who utilize several different structured activities, each with a task to accomplish when working with clients and horses. Often these exercises are targeted toward specific diagnosis, such as “Temptation Alley,” for eating disorder clients. In this exercise, a client must lead a horse past several piles of hay and buckets of grain, while preventing the horse from eating. The thought here is that in doing this, the client’s own unique ways of avoiding, or giving in to temptation will emerge.

Even further, some therapists have grouped several of these types of activities to accomplish things such as raising the client’s sense of efficacy, enhancing emotional containment strategies, improving communication, and fostering empathy. In this way, solid treatment plans have been possible for adept therapists in the equine therapy realm.

However, just as in traditional therapy, there are those who would argue that unless the relationship that develops between the therapist and client is part of the therapeutic treatment, progress is stifled, some, myself included, feel strongly that the relationship between the human and the horse must be at the forefront of equine therapy. The horse’s behavior must therefore,be interpreted to the client in a way that he/she understands. And it must be interpreted correctly, as that of a herd animal. Clearly this requires a very erudite therapist, who is both able to read the interactions between the client and the horse, and use them to help the client become more aware of what is most likely unconscious to him/her.

In this approach, just as in a psychoanalytic approach, when the client has become fully aware of what is happening under the surface, and how it manifests itself in his/her relationships, and namely, that with the therapist, he/she is said to have come to a place of less unconscious conflict and a greater sense of wellbeing. The difference being, of course, in equine therapy, it is the horse the relationship develops with.

Photo by Michael Wifall, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.