That’s a great question! Many people assume that equine-facilitated therapy is for “horse people” and, as a result, they mistakenly think that this form of therapy isn’t for them. In reality, equine-facilitated therapy requires no prior horse experience whatsoever. Oftentimes, the people who get the most out of it are people who are brand new to horses, who do not have any programming to undo about how to relate to horses as may have been learned in a particular equine discipline – which can sometimes get in the way of interacting with the horses on the ground in a therapeutic capacity. For individuals who do have prior horse experience, you may already be aware of how powerful they are as teachers and may be drawn to this modality as a result, or you may be curious about how to relate to horses in a different way. Equine-facilitated therapy is often sought out by individuals with trauma/PTSD, anxiety, depression, emotion dysregulation, difficulties with anger, stress/burnout, chronic health issues, grief and loss, and relationship challenges. Horses are amazing teachers of how to be authentically present in the moment; how to listen to the wisdom of your body in making effective decisions about your needs; how to set and maintain healthy boundaries; how to build your capacity to raise your energy and be confidently assertive without fear; how to regulate emotions and modulate your arousal level flexibly based on what is happening now (vs. programmed reaction/trigger patterns from before that are no longer working for you); how to process residual trauma or dysfunctional attachment dynamics; how to shift from being hypervigilant and in your head to a more embodied state of alert curiosity; and how to heal your relationship with yourself and others. It may come to no surprise to learn that equine-facilitated therapy is often one of the treatments offered at the top trauma, mental health and addictions facilities worldwide. If these themes are of interest to you, then the horses can teach you how to have “horse experience” in a way that is both beneficial to you reaching your therapeutic goals and mutually beneficial for them since you’ll be learning to interact with them on their terms. The wisdom of the herd is truly remarkable helping humans heal.
Learning to work through fear – regardless of the fear – has a lot of transferability in how you address other challenging situations in your life. Fear has a charge associated with it, and is often connected with the freeze/shutdown/immobility response where we cease to be able to move forward and get “stuck”. Your muscles and body literally become tight and brace against whatever (or whomever) is overwhelming to you. For some, this may also turn into collapse, where bracing turns into a passive helplessness and a sense of giving up because nothing you do works (“I can’t”), and you may tend to tolerate mistreatment or situations that are not serving you as a result. You may have other situations in your life where something (a person or a situation) is overwhelming your ability to cope, with anxiety, passivity, or avoidance as common solutions or outcomes – all of which are very limiting and reinforce outdated core beliefs about yourself, others and the world around you. Working on building your confidence around horses can help you build the internal capacity and skills to face and renegotiate other situations that have until now left you feeling helpless and hopeless. Equine-facilitated therapy aims to help you shift out of a sense of “I can’t…” to restoring your sense of embodied empowerment, emotional flexibility, agency and ability to take effective action on your own behalf (“I can!”). When you’re able to interact confidently with a 1,200lb animal without fear, and have them respond to you with mutual respect, imagine how useful this might be in other situations in your life.
Uncoupling fear from your love of horses is possible. Part of the beauty of combining trauma-specific Somatic Experiencing therapy and equine-facilitated therapy is that we can work on resolving horse-related trauma. You may feel a deep love of horses that has gotten tainted by fear, horror or pain, resulting in aversion and avoidance. So the focus of our work together might include helping you work through the residual charge of anxiety associated with any of the following:
- Being around horses or seeing tack and equipment
- Slowly building your tolerance and threshold for interactions with them
- Safely processing residual trauma involving a specific event by focusing on titrated, incremental movements to defuse charge left over from procedural memory
- Shifting out of fight/flight/freeze to greater ease, playfulness, freedom and joy in their presence, among other goals.
Absolutely. Trauma is not the only explanation or reason for many mental health and addictions challenges, although it is a common one. Although we are trauma-specific in our training, this focus offers many benefits and skillfulness in working safely, sensitively and compassionately with other common life challenges as well. Our program will be of interest not only to people who have experienced trauma/PTSD, but also anyone wanting to focus on any of the following:
- Chronic stress, burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma
- Relationship and attachment issues (including family of origin dynamics, codependency, boundaries, separation, divorce, abuse, etc.)
- Emotional dysregulation (anxiety, panic, anger, depression, dissociation)
- Addictions and self-harm
- Chronic pain, chronic fatigue or other chronic or threatening health conditions
- Grief and loss
- Self-compassion, self-regulation, self-worth, self-confidence and self-care
- Authenticity, “true self”, creativity, flexibility, spontaneity and joy
- Personal and spiritual growth
- Addictions, eating disorders and self-harm
The main thing in common with these modalities is that they involve horses. Otherwise, these are very different types of intervention. A therapeutic riding instructor typically facilitates therapeutic riding for children, youth and adults with physical or developmental disabilities, learning difficulties and occasionally with mental health struggles. The focus is typically recreational with therapeutic benefits involving social engagement, self-confidence, physical mobility, and life skill building. Horses are typically trained to be therapeutic riding horses, quiet and predictable, and led through various exercises with a side walker to support stabilization and safety for the participant on the horse’s back. In contrast, equine-facilitated psychotherapy mainly occurs on the ground, is facilitated by a credentialed therapist (or therapist – equine professional team), and there are typically specific goals and a treatment plan. The horses are either at liberty or on lead and allowed to respond in more spontaneous, non-programmed ways when relating with humans. Typically, horses involved in equine-facilitated psychotherapy haven’t got any particular “therapy training”, though they might have training in a particular equine discipline. A wider range of personality styles and nervous systems can make “good” therapy horses (ranging from gentle and calm to perhaps a bit more pushy or unpredictable), as each offers different teachable moments and lessons in horse wisdom to learn from.