Reflections on EMDR and Equines

EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is a trauma treatment method that was originally developed for humans by Francine Shapiro. EMDR uses structured protocols and bilateral simulation (BLS) for resourcing and down-regulation, and to reprocess targets (traumatic memories, triggers, or other challenging material or scenarios) that carry unresolved charge related to fear and other emotions.

Bilateral stimulation was originally achieved via eye movements, similar to the involuntary eye movements that track back and forth during REM sleep, and that can at times be seen when people are simply reflecting on an experience.

However, other methods of bilateral stimulation are also used, such as listening to tones or soundtracks that alternate from ear to ear, holding alternating buzzers, tapping oneself (or being tapped) on either side of one’s body, or even engaging in activities that alternate use of either side of one’s body, such as walking. Bilateral stimulation also allows clients to have dual attention, with one foot in the memory processing and one foot in the present (through awareness of the BLS and other aspects of the here-and-now).

EMDR in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy

Not surprisingly, EMDR has been integrated into some forms of equine-assisted psychotherapy, again where the human is the client, where equines can be integrated at different points in the basic 8 phase protocol and other protocols. While a number of EMDR-trained therapists who are also experienced with equines may have experimented with integrating them into this process for their human clients, there are at least two formalized approaches with trainings available for professionals: EquiLateral Equine-Assisted EMDR (Sarah Jenkins) and Equine-Connected EMDR (Natural Lifemanship).

This is largely to support resourcing and co-regulation for the human client, and also to provide alternative methods of dual attention (observing the equines nearby while self-tapping, for instance) and the BLS itself, such as taking an equine for a walk, matching steps with an equine, or being on horseback and experiencing the movement of the animal’s gait. Integrating walking (whether on the ground or mounted) adds a relational component to the experience of BLS, that may enhance feelings of containment, support, and safe connection while reprocessing various targets.

To ensure that they are not merely mechanical tools or novel ways of experiencing BLS, the animals’ needs for safety, connection, attunement, and regulation also should be attended to. Equines can get burned out from being involved in equine-assisted interventions for people, and their willingness to participate and their cues (of overwhelm, fatigue, activation, shutdown, appeasement, or otherwise) are just as important to attend to as are the human client’s. This attunement to the equine is offered by one of the professionals leading the treatment, or by the client themselves, depending on the capacity and needs of the moment.

EMDR for Equines as Clients?

Based on research that looked at the use of bilateral stimulation (from EMDR) in mice to prevent the resurgence of fear over the long-term (translation of the study located here), Fabienne Lannes-Gillibert adapted the EMDR basic protocol for use with non-human animals, including dogs, cats, and horses.

I took her 2-day introductory module on EMDR for Animals in Marseille, France in 2019, and was intrigued and fascinated by this application of EMDR to support the reprocessing of fear, phobias, and traumas in other mammals. This was a joy for me to explore, given that I have already been working on integrating other models and approaches (such as Somatic Experiencing®, attachment theory, polyvagal theory, and so on) into equine-human contexts, not only for humans but for the equines themselves. Especially because many of these “human” treatments or frameworks are based in animal models, whether research on animals or mammalian ethology and neuroscience, yet for some reason have not been widely applied to animals as “clients”. Instead, with non-human mammals, the focus is still predominantly the application of operant conditioning and various behaviour shaping strategies to address trauma and fear-related issues, even though there are so many exciting developments that have evolved beyond behaviourism. This is the underlying inspiration for EQUUSOMA® Horse-Human Trauma Recovery as well as Equuscience™.

  • Update: The 2023-2024 dates for the EQUUSOMA® professional training and Equuscience™ educational offerings will be released in the coming days! Check our websites for more information.

Using BLS with Equines, for Equines

Thankfully, exploring the use of bilateral stimulation (BLS) for equines does not necessarily require formal training in EMDR (whether for humans or for animals), though certainly pursuing ongoing professional development is recommended in order to develop more nuance and skill in integrating it in a more systematic way. BLS is not unique to EMDR, and exists as a neurological phenomenon independently of the EMDR protocols (indeed, BLS is also integrated into Brainspotting, another trauma treatment method for humans).

The following are three examples (of many) where BLS might be used to support equines (not in the context of structured EMDR protocols).

Matching Steps

For instance, at a recent horsemanship clinic, Warwick Schiller described how he worked on matching steps with a distressed horse, which appears to have had a similar effect for the equine as when such an activity is done for the benefit of the human. The horse began to settle and started to show more signs of curiosity and eventual connection. The mechanism behind the matching steps may have been a combination of not just bilateral stimulation but also dual attention on something other than the source of the distress, within the context of attuned relationship (something that the OTTB had apparently not had much experience with in its previous career).

The combination of BLS and relational attunement appear to have allowed the equine to experience a version of what in Somatic Experiencing® is called “renegotiation“, that is a different biological and/or relational outcome in a familiar problematic situation. OTTBs are primed, through selective breeding, handling, and training, to have nervous systems that are easily stimulated into sympathetic activation to complete the task that is expected of them. What goes up doesn’t always easily come down. Matching steps may have been an opportunity for a small shift to occur in this pattern, creating an opening for future progress.

Of course, the handler’s nervous system state and intentionality also make a difference, as does the speed at which the step matching occurs. The bilateral movement of the legs of a horse in full flight response, especially if the human is activated or shut down, will not generate the same reprocessing and deactivating effect as when walking intentionally at a less frantic pace with a regulated, patient, and attuned human matching steps.

Scentwork

Another example where BLS may come into play is in scentwork for horses. Rachael Draaisma’s innovative work in this area involves setting up environmental enrichment experiences that allow horses to engage curiosity and their senses by tracking scents in relationship with their handler.

In some parts of scentwork, the handler and the equine end up walking together and may match steps and pace. Aside from the deactivating and reprocessing feature of BLS (achieved by the walking), additional advantages of scentwork include developing and experiencing relational attunement, doing something enjoyable for the horse that the human is also enjoying (different from a typical task-oriented focus that may be primarily to benefit the human, where the human may be stressed or under pressure), and awakening the various cranial nerves (sensory stimulation and exploratory orienting) which in turn communicate with the ventral branch of the vagus and support down-regulation in the presence of cues of safety (polyvagal theory). For a shut down, depressed, or tune-out horse, being able to re-awaken what was suppressed (aliveness and agency through following attractions in a “togetherness” experience where both are in a ventral vagal state) through scentwork provides another example of renegotiation on a relational level while supporting sustainable physiology to come on board.

Resource Tapping

Research studies show that some horses don’t enjoy being patted or touched in ways that are non-consensual. However, what is less well-known is using soft taps (such as alternating taps to the horse’s shoulders, while in the saddle or on the ground for instance) to help the horse to down-regulate when feeling stressed. It can be helpful to introduce this to the horse when it is already calm, to pair the taps with an experience that is resourcing for the animal. That way, there is already a pairing between the taps and the state of “calm” that can be re-cued when the animal is a little stressed. This, of course, does not preclude the importance of backing up and titrating and attending to thresholds as is done in Somatic Experiencing®, but could be added in as an additional resource.

Tapping for the purposes of reprocessing a feared situation or object using the EMDR protocol requires additional training.

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Note: None of the ideas and suggestions listed above are a substitute for medical attention. This article features ideas and methods that show promise but that may not have extensive research support at the present time with equines (even if grounded in mammalian neuroscience, animal studies, or research on humans). Any issues involving equines should be assessed by a qualified veterinarian or equine behaviour specialist. This article is written for educational and explorational purposes only, to inspire more research and evaluation of the ideas articulated herein in the hopes of advancing the field of equine science and practice. Readers who experiment with these ideas do so at their own risk and absolve the author of any liability. Any method discussed may not apply in all circumstances or with all equines, as each individual situation and animal is different, and using BLS randomly without clear intentionality around its use, timing, and purpose is not recommended.