The quote, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” is often used to capture the healing spirit of the horse. Winston Churchill is credited with the famous line and although equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) didn’t exist in the mid-1900s, it’s clear he knew the role horses could play in helping individuals heal.
Kelly Peterson of Acorn Hill EAAT in Motley, Missouri, is looking to equine-facilitated psychotherapy as the newest addition to her therapeutic program. She has partnered with a licensed social worker pursuing extra training in using the horse as a tool in counseling sessions.
“In equine-assisted psychotherapy, you have a mental health person, the client and someone certified in the horse side of it,” she said. “It’s beautiful what to watch somebody come in the arena being unable to voice a problem and through doing things with the therapist and the horse be able to work through that.”
The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) provides standards of professionalism and safety for professionals who offer EFP. The association’s website states that since horses are domesticated prey animals they are extremely sensitive to a person’s emotional state.
“The horse acts as a large biofeedback machine, providing the client and the therapist with information regarding the client's moods and changes within those moods,” the website explains.
The team—the certified mental health professional, the certified horse handler, the horse and the client—work in an arena or round pen where the horse is let loose. The horse responds to how the person is feeling or acting in that moment by changing its behavior. How the horse reacts inspires a conversation between the therapist and client for working on identified goals.
“Inevitably the horse will come up to that person and put their nose like right in their chest or put their nose on their back, and there isn't a dry eye in the whole place,” she said. “It's incredible.”