Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is a form of therapeutic intervention in which horses are used as a way for clients to gain self-understanding and emotional growth. Horses have served in therapeutic and rehabilitative roles for centuries, from ancient Greece in 600 BC through the 20th century when equine therapy helped wounded soldiers or people who were afflicted with polio. Only in the past few decades have equine-assisted therapy emerged as a field of mental health and been used in dozens of ways by diverse populations of people.
Today, EAP is a type of animal assisted therapy that recognizes the bond between animals and humans and the potential for emotional healing that can occur when a relationship is formed between the two species. During the process of working with the horses, the therapist and student engage in discussion, processing feelings, behaviors and patterns. The student learns patience, compassion, responsibility and the extent to which their actions affect others close to them. It is an effective short-term therapeutic approach that can have a healing effect on teens, while addressing a number of mental health problems, including behavioral issues, depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders, ADD/ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and relationship problems.
Why use horses for psychotherapy?
- Horses are unique animals that have the ability to mirror the physical and emotional states of participants during therapy. If the student brings negative emotions to the session, the horse will respond negatively toward them and may be unwilling to complete the exercises.
- Horses give accurate and unbiased feedback through their behaviors and meta-communications with students. They only judge a person by how they are at the moment. For example, most domestic horses shy away from aggressive behavior. Equine therapy can help a troubled teen learn that quiet, gentle behavior gets better results than behavior that is loud and aggressive.
- Horses help students to learn about congruence between their feelings and their behaviors. This encourages students to identify healthy and unhealthy behaviors while realizing that their moods and anxieties affect other creatures.
- Horses allow therapists to better identify and understand patterns exhibited by the students, so as to bring about diagnostic and treatment changes more effectively.
The Equine Assisted Therapy at SUWS NC
The SUWS Equine Assisted Therapy (EAP) Program through Horse Sense of the Carolinas www.Horsesenseotc.com follows the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning) Model. At SUWS, equine activities are set up and facilitated by one of our master’s level licensed mental-health professionals and the support of a horse professional from Horse Sense. It includes a minimum of 6 hours per stay for each student. The activities have a team therapeutic approach and are performed on the ground (rather than riding), which include such things as grooming, haltering and leading the horse. During the process of working with the horse, the therapist and student engage in discussion, processing feelings, behaviors and patterns. Interactions with the horses are controlled, and are done for specific reasons. The ultimate goal for the student is to build skills such as personal responsibility, assertiveness, non-verbal communication, self-confidence, and self-control.
SUWS model provides the following structured framework:
- Team therapeutic approach
- 6 hours per student per stay
- Professionally administered– Requires a SUWS Master’s Level Mental Health Professional be with the Equine Specialists, the horses and students at all times, to actively design and discuss therapeutic goals objectives, metaphors and experiences for students.
- Solution-focused therapeutic approach– Focuses on helping students with the best solutions to their identified problems.
- Ground-based experience– Students interact with the horses on the ground for safety and for use of effective and ground-based experiences, where the horses provide deliberate experience metaphors.
A Lasting Impression
The benefits of working with horses are undeniable. Adolescents learn patience, compassion, and responsibility, as well as communication, decision-making, and leadership skills while realizing the extent to which their actions affect others close to them. For adolescents who suffer from social or developmental disorders, equine therapy can offer life-changing opportunities to work through internal struggles and rebuild positive interpersonal relationships. These life lessons apply not only with the horses or in the wilderness, but also to a teen’s everyday existence at home and in school.
Preliminary Outcome Data:
- A study of EAP clients in 2007 demonstrated significant continued reduction of psychological distress in clients from a baseline period to 6 month follow-up after EAP.
- A Horse Sense (2007) study reporting on EAP designed for Adjudicated Adolescents showed a 66% reported positive change in reduction of recidivism behaviors, based upon the Youth Outcomes Questionnaire (YOQ) instrument.
- Studies have shown that spending time with a friendly animal, even a short time like 10 to 15 minutes, increases the amount of endorphins that are released into the body and decreases the levels of a chemical called cortisol – which is a hormone that controls stress and arousal. Because many troubled teens are in a near-constant state of emotional arousal and/or stress, animal assisted therapy can help them feel calmer.
Sapir, L. (2007) Equine Assisted Clinical Practice with At-Risk Youth: Treatment Approach and Results @ Horse Sense of the Carolinas. Retrieved from here.