“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” We’ve all seen this quote; some of us have it painted on a plaque and hang it on our tack room or office wall. Sir Winston Churchill is credited with the observation, although we who work with horses don’t need a famous statesman to tell us what we already know: horses are just plain good for our mental health.
For decades, Pony clubs, 4-H and other youth volunteers have recognized the benefits of pairing kids up with horses so that the horses can teach them responsibility, compassion for others, and communication. We all have felt the comradeship with other horsemen when gathering at clinics, shows, trail rides and other horse events. But, many horse owners confess they find their greatest sense of peace while just sitting in the barn listening to their horses munch hay, or while grooming and otherwise caring for them. It is not just about the fun of riding, it’s about the relationship. Equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) takes that knowledge to a higher level by using the horse as a tool for psychotherapy. It is an experimental approach to teaching emotional growth and mental well-being.
Horses are used as a tool to teach people about themselves—some call the process mirroring. Joan Rieger, MA, LPC Psychotherapist, explains on her website, “Horses, like humans, are social animals that live together in herds with defined hierarchies, very similar to our family systems. Each horse has a specific role and responsibilities within the hierarchy. A horse’s nature is always to be in response to humans; therefore, people receive direct and immediate feedback on their intentions and behaviors. Clients will have the experience of the horse acting as a mirror to their own internal process.” Rieger, who is on staff as the youth program director at the Medicine Horse Program in Boulder, Colo., gives a long list of the benefits of EAP and who can benefit from the therapy. Because EAP is new and experimental, there is a wide range of ways it is being used.
Bruce Anderson, director of Nature’s View in Camden, S.C., offers a variety of programs with “horses helping people and people helping horses.” Anderson says he discovered that in his quest to help horses under his care and training, the horses were in turn helping him. Anderson took that realization and developed it into a business—Nature’s View. He uses the round pen and Shire horses. One of the more innovative of his programs is police training. The policemen learn to convince the horses to obey commands with voice and body language. Anderson says the sheer size of the Shire horses is at first intimidating, and that this helps his clients empathize with how people feel when confronted by a police officer. Anderson also works with school children and teachers, corporations, families and individuals.
Anderson says, “People can relate to horses in a way they don’t with any other animal. Perhaps because of the long association man has had with the horse as a helpmate, transporting him and his belongings, lending its strength, stamina and speed, the horse has helped human beings survive in the world.” He goes on to say that he feels horses are more important now than ever before—“Working with horses brings the human back in contact with the natural world.”
Since EAP is in its experimental stages, a need arose for an industry standard and code of ethics. As one can easily guess, this is a branch of the equine industry that is open to misuse and abuse. The fulfillment of the need for standardization has materialized in the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). This association offers a certification program with training workshops for various levels. They have established standards of practice, ethics and safety for the field of EAP. EAGALA conducts annual conferences and provides educational materials such as books, videos, and newsletters. They also work to get professionals in the mental health field to accept EAP as a valid tool.
In EAP, participants are not riding the horse, but working from the ground in various exercises with the horse. According to EAGALA, non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem solving, leadership, work, responsibility, teamwork and relationships, confidence, and attitude are tools used in EAP. EAGALA goes on to say EAP is a powerful and effective therapeutic approach that has an incredible impact on people.
EAP succeeds, in part, because it offers a challenge in a non-threatening way, breaks down defense barriers, provides immediate cause-and- effect situations, catches and holds a client’s attention, and promotes change from dysfunctional patterns to successful ones.
According to EAGALA, EAP programs should be made up of a team that includes the horse(s), a facilitator and a qualified mental health professional.
Horse Sense of the Carolinas, Inc., is a 90-acre farm in Marshall, N.C., run by Shannon and Richard Knapp. The Knapps moved here from Dallas, Tex. Previously a college teacher, Shannon left her academic career to care for and rehabilitate abused and neglected horses.
In 2001, she began pairing these horses with people. As she explored the relationship between horses and people she discovered EAP. She realized this was a calling and, today, the Horse Sense of the Carolinas, Inc., team includes seven staff members: Shannon and Richard, two mental health professionals, and three equine specialists. The team also includes 14 horses, many of them rescued from neglectful or abusive situations or retired because of physical injuries. Since the program does not include riding, this gives the horses a new purpose. Shannon is Level 2 certified by EAGALA, and is working on obtaining Level 3. Richard is certified Level 1 as an equine specialist and has earned Level 2 in the Pat Parelli program.
Shannon says, “Horses that have been abused or neglected have an incredible ability to reach out to people with similar problems. The horses give clients the opportunity to learn about themselves and process mental and emotional issues without judgment.”
Bruce Anderson says EAP can increase the productivity of the horse professional’s business by developing new programs such as police training, corporate leadership training, family relationship training, as well as programs for athletes and for individuals. Adding an EAP program to an established riding or training program can be a natural progression. Participants are not restricted to horse owners or even horse enthusiasts, so adding this kind of program helps bring an entirely new demographic to your barn door.
Even if horse business owners are not inclined to develop their own program, they can benefit by renting their facilities and/or horses to an outside EAP professional to conduct a program. Anderson conducts his program from Rainbow’s End Farm, owned by Roxanne Thrower. Thrower breeds Shire horses and Anderson uses her horses in his program.
Thrower says, “Bruce came to my farm to help me train my horses. Since I had an ideal round pen, he asked, and I told him he was welcome to use it and bring whomever he wanted out, and to use my horses. He felt the horses were very safe, and it was more exposure to different people and situations for my horses—a win-win for both of us. Bruce has since taken the horses to different activities, which is more exposure for both his work and my horses.”
Getting an equine assisted psychotherapy and Learning Program off the ground can require funding beyond that of running a training or lesson barn. Qualified staff, suitable horses, and fees for training are some of the expenses incurred. Often, the very people such therapy can help the most, such as at-risk youth, may not be able to afford the fees. Many program leaders are finding grant money is available to help with the expenses and to provide scholarships for participants. Grants can be used to hire staff, purchase horses and supplies, and provide scholarships for those who may not be able to afford to participate. EAGALA’s website has some sample grant proposals to use as models. Shannon Knapp teaches a four-part series of Tele-seminars on how to find grant money, gain community support, and write the grant proposal.
Equine assisted psychotherapy programs are becoming more and more accepted across the country. It can expand the traditional horse program and benefit both the horse professional and the community as horses continue their role of making life more fulfilling for people.