During this time of lockdown and isolation, I have reflected and written here about my role as an equine assisted psychotherapist and the positive impact of experiencing psychotherapy outdoors in nature with horses. As we are in the midst of the Coronavirus Covid-19 and its necessary restrictions, if you are interested in considering this powerful psychotherapeutic approach, I am offering a free 15 minute telephone or video consultation.
Equine Assisted Therapy is a unique intervention, giving clients an opportunity to experience freedom, self-expression and understanding through exploration with horses in a natural environment.
I joined Shine for Life (www.shineforlife.co.uk) in 2012 as a psychotherapist, working with Gabrielle Gardner as part of her team, offering this alternative type of therapy to a wide range of clients. At Shine for Life we are specialists, both experienced with horses and trained in mental health. We work in pairs, two therapists with two or more horses, creating and holding a warm, positive, non-judgmental space. We begin all equine sessions with a ten-minute mindful meditation, allowing clients to arrive in the space and feel grounded before meeting the horses. All work takes place on the ground, with the horses free to roam in their natural environment, where clients are encouraged to interact and connect, at their own pace.
Being large prey animals, horses are highly sensitive to what is happening in the moment and much of the insight that the clients experience, takes the form of analogy and metaphor, whilst observing the horses’ behaviour and discussing this with the therapists. When noticing how the horses interact with each other or with the clients themselves, clients often recognise some of their own patterns and comments like “that’s just like me” or “that always happens to me” are commonplace; the individual horse or horses are able, by their behaviour and reactions, to bring into awareness patterns of behaviour that the client can relate to.
Horses are totally non-judgmental, and may choose to interact with the client through an innate sense of curiosity if they feel safe to do so. Research informs us that they are able to tune in to our emotional states – a necessary survival strategy in such a sensitive animal. For some clients having a large, powerful animal approach can be intimidating, but also highly rewarding and clients will often modify their own behaviour in order to experience and encourage a connection. On establishing this bond, the client feels acceptance at a deep emotional level; which in itself has potential for healing and affirming. Simply making eye contact at close quarters with the horse can be validating for the client. They are ‘seen’ and are worthy of acknowledgement, which, for some, is hugely powerful and offers an opportunity for growth and learning.
Building a relationship with one or more of the horses is an important part of this work. This requires a sense of self, an awareness of how to be or not to be, and how to encourage and demonstrate trust. Subtle body language skills are key as horses do not generally respond to verbal cues, although many clients do talk to them, in soft, modified tones.
In order to achieve the desired outcome, the client may have to adapt their approach a number of times and be able deal with the disappointment of not achieving success initially. This is just one example of how clients can benefit from this experiential learning that may not have been part of their experience previously and can be translated to their interactions and relationships with others. Some sessions consist simply of quiet observation of the horses; others may involve some gentle interaction such as breathing with the horses, stroking and grooming. Discussion may accompany these exercises, as instigated by the clients. Other clients may have a desire for active involvement and enjoy being set simple tasks to complete with the horses. Often these sessions involve young people who may benefit from active achievement. However, it soon becomes apparent that whatever we plan, this can change moment by moment; ultimately, the horses set the pace and style of the session.
Clients are encouraged to notice shifts in the horses and in themselves, to observe sensations and remain embodied with their experiences if possible, which can be difficult for some who have spent many years avoiding painful feelings. We encourage vulnerability and congruence as this is more likely to elicit reactions and responses from the horses.
It is always a privilege to work with our clients and be able to provide a safe space for them to experience and disclose feelings, which may not have surfaced previously. The very nature of being with horses can elicit the expression of emotions from a deep level, often surprising the clients themselves. Becoming aware, being brave enough to experience vulnerability and embody the feelings, then maybe allowing the gentle warm breath of a horse to soothe the pain is hugely powerful and healing.
Clients talk about their sense of peace frequently during and after sessions. It is extremely rewarding to hear about personal insights leading to beneficial change after just a few sessions with the horses. My experience over the years with this type of work has shown me how effective it is as a form of therapy – a unique and some say spiritual one, which I would encourage anyone to try.