Why Horses?

Why do we utilise a horse in the therapeutic process? Horses first and foremost are large animals. Learning to safely and effectively work around such big creatures requires patience, trust, compassion, awareness, and self-confidence. Gaining or enhancing these traits alone can be quite an accomplishment.

 

Horses have the added benefit of being very social creatures, with a strict hierarchy and societal rules that are very similar to human communities. By relating, for example, the pecking order that is found among horses to the pecking orders that exist in various human situations, clients learn whether they are leaders or followers and the strengths of both positions.

Horses also have very clear-cut personalities. An interesting factor of working with horses is that most clients tend to choose to work with an animal that is almost exactly like them in personality characteristics. This can be an effective tool for understanding self and how others relate to self. Perhaps the most important aspect of using horses in therapy is that they are consummately honest creatures. In a group of humans and horses, horses will always win the “most honest” contest. A horse’s inability to lie can be invaluable in seeing what a client may be attempting to hide or manipulate. Horses’ body language, by which they communicate 99% of their feelings and actions, can reveal a person’s real self and begin to break down barriers and communication blocks.

As a therapeutic tool, the ability to escape from four office walls is very effective in quickly reaching the heart of a person’s issues. The corral or pasture provides a natural setting that is different from the office in that the cleints do not feel as closely watched or focused on by their therapist. Often during an EAP session, clients do not realise or acknowledge that therapy is actually occurring. The person who may be able to control or skirt around a situation during office therapy will find it much more difficult to do so when presented with living horses who have a mind of their own and aren’t afraid to expose the client’s real self. Another benefit of EAP is that the activities inherently demand an immediate reaction from the client. From the first moment they are presented with a horse, clients use the same coping mechanisms as they do with other stressful factors in their lives. Therefore, the person’s issues usually rise to the surface much more quickly during EAP than they do in the office, and thus the issues can be dealt with sooner.

Horses are most effectively used in EAP as metaphors for life, attitudes, and behaviours. For example, clients may be asked to make a horse go over a jump set up in the arena, which sounds simple until the rules are stated: No touching the horse whatsoever; cannot use a lead rope or halter; cannot bribe the horse with food real or imagined; there will be a consequence for every rule broken. When the activity starts, clients discover how difficult it can be to complete the task. Issues such as anger management, frustration, control, and others can quickly rear up and provide interesting fodder for a discussion afterward. Clients are also asked to relate the activity to themselves by deciding who was represented by the horse, by the person, and by the activity itself. Oftentimes, clients decide that they were the horse and that their parents were represented by themselves. Clients of all ages will often have a better appreciation for what their parents may have gone through in trying to get them to do what their parents want!

One simple but powerful demonstration of how EAP uses horses is to ask parents how best to make the horse move forward. This helps parents to reflect on which way it is better to manage their child’s behaviour and helps to develop more effective parenting skills. Should they pull with all their might on the lead rope and demand that the horse follow them? Hold onto the end of the rope and let the horse mostly wander where it will? Stand in front of the horse and extend a hand in hopes that the horse will walk forward by its own choice? Stand directly behind the horse and wave their arms at it?

The best place, of course, is at the horse’s side, quietly and gently holding the lead rope and guiding the horse while walking by its side the entire time. Yanking on the horse can cause it to become stubborn and defy the person leading it. Letting the horse wander freely can allow too much space in which the horse can get into trouble or run afoul of dangers. Hoping that the horse will choose to move forward when the parent is in front of it is a common but inaccurate attempt; inaccurate because the parent is actually blocking the horse’s path and, in effect, saying “stop.” Getting behind the horse to make it move is a very effective method, but that can also be scary; who knows where the horse will go or what it will do if set free with no restrictions? When next telling the parents that the horse represents their child, the parents can quickly and easily understand how EAP works through metaphor and begin to perhaps see how their actions have precipitated their child’s reactions. The power of using a horse as a therapeutic tool cannot be underestimated in such a situation.

Chrysalis Equine Therapy works collaboratively so that clients of all ages can learn to change their approach to their lives, act in more positive ways, and understand themselves better.

Benefits of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy

  • Breaks down defense barriers
  • Time effective
  • Challenges people in a non-threatening manner
  • The horse is a non-judgmental, honest friend
  • Promotes a motivating learning environment
  • Builds the therapeutic relationship
  • Enhances problem-solving skills
  • Provides immediate cause-and-effect situations
  • Decreases feelings of hopelessness
  • Stimulates creativity
  • Encourages responsibility
  • Captivates and holds attention
  • Helps teach empathy
  • Empowers and gives a sense of control over self
  • Develops social skills
  • Teaches better communication skills
  • Promotes both teamwork and individual leadership