I’m often on the lookout for progressive new effective therapies. This led my wife and I to go check out Denim ‘n’ Dirt in Santa Clarita, CA when we heard of the advances in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. I have to admit I was dubious that integrating horses and psychotherapy would be therapeutic, but putting my mindful hat on I walked in with a beginner’s mind and curiosity.
We walked up and met with Dr. B. Jane Wick and Steve Nelson, and without getting into too many details, by the end of a single session I was pretty amazed at the incredible overlap between mindfulness and equine therapy. I was also a bit blown away by the way the horses picked up on subtle cues and in ways that this unique form of therapy helped enlighten us to some important things that needed more mindfulness.
This is why it’s my pleasure to bring to you Dr. B. Jane Wick, a psychologist of 25 years, and equine assistant Steve Nelson of Denim ‘n’ Dirt to give us some more insight into the wonder behind this work.
Today Jane will be telling us what Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is, why it has such an impact in a short amount of time, a practical example of how it works and a tip and some thoughts on how we can go about finding this therapy for ourselves.
Elisha: Equine therapy seems to be gaining a lot of interest as a way of creating change quickly; tell us briefly what it is and why you think it has such dramatic effects?
Jane: Thank you Elisha for giving me an opportunity to answer some of these excellent questions you’ve asked about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy!
EAP is indeed gaining popularity because it helps people change in very profound ways. It is our experience that clients who work in sessions with horses, a skilled therapist and an equine specialist are on a fast track to identifying and confronting the emotional, psychological and spiritual issues that most affect their lives. This is true whether the client is working as an individual or as part of a couple, family or group. There are several reasons why this approach to the growth and learning process is so effective.
First, the arena where the sessions take place is a large space in which to metaphorically create the inner reality of the client. The actual process of physically designing this inner world and acting within it with horses engages the client physically and non-verbally as well as verbally, creating vivid insights into the world in which the client lives.
Horses are particularly well suited for engaging the client with his/her inner work. Whereas we navigate our modern world by relying heavily on the linguistic, logic driven left side of our brain, the horse relies on intuitive sensing and non-verbal communication for its survival. As prey animals, their senses have been honed for over 50 million years to discern even the smallest shifts in their environment.
When horses look at us, they see past our persona and pretenses to the person we truly are. When we interact with them, they “mirror” our inner state. We have seen horses consistently demonstrate an uncanny ability to reflect even subtle and unconscious emotional states; this phenomenon must be experienced directly to be understood even at its most basic level. Clearly we have much to learn about how horses can sense so much about us.
Elisha: Can you give us a practical example of a way that therapy worked to raise self-awareness and help a client?
Jane: Yes, we were working with a young woman who had been sexually abused as a child and suffered from a great deal of depression and poor self-esteem. After several sessions she was ready to talk about her sexual abuse trauma. As she was describing her horrific experience, one of the horses came up to her seemingly wanting to be patted. As she patted the horse the horse began to lick her arms, then her legs and finally started to really crowd her and invade her space. The young woman froze. I suggested that she could act to set a boundary with the horse. She responded by pushing the horse’s head away and proclaimed, “Hey, cut it out; I’m a separate person from you!”
The horse then put his right front hoof on top of the young woman’s foot as if to “point.” I asked her what that meant to her. She responded, “He’s telling me that I really need to understand that and that I am a separate person that CAN SET BOUNDARIES.” At this point the horse turned around and walked away.
This was a peak moment in her therapy process. Since then her depression and self-esteem have lifted significantly and her life and relationships have continued to improve.
This is but one of many stories of people whose lives have been dramatically changed through their work in the arena with us and the horses.
Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was emotionally struggling right now and was wondering if equine therapy would be helpful to them, what would you say?
Jane: I would tell them that they most likely would gain a lot by engaging in EAP. I have been a practicing psychologist for more than 25 years, and this is one of most effective therapies I have ever encountered. I feel privileged to be able to offer this new experience in the service of helping people heal and live more fulfilling lives.
Thank you Jane and Steve for the wonderful work you do. By the way, I was so impressed with this work and it’s overlap with mindfulness that at some point in the future I will likely be teaming up with Jane and Steve to offer a Mindfulness-Based Daylong Retreat integrating their work with Equine Therapy at Denim ‘n’ Dirt Ranch.
As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Woman and horse photo available from Shutterstock