After taking our five clients through a body scan exercise, I’ve turned them over to my colleagues. It takes around half an hour for them to step out of their own heads and into the moment. Half an hour of running and frustration, before they pause and lower their energy enough for my co-workers to allow them to approach and halter them. Without speaking a word my associates have shown these troubled, educationally excluded young people that they can master their own emotions. When your partners are horses, it can be easy to question if you’re working hard enough. Not only do they handle a lot of the client work, my four legged therapists also insist that I maintain high standards too; they challenge me to ‘practice what I preach’, and ‘be’ rather than ‘do’.

Equine assisted therapies are by no means new; humans have had relationships with horses for hundreds of years. Horses have the capacity to heal humans in deep and life changing ways. There is a significant research base into this work and this has led the work to enter the mainstream in a way that it never has before (see for a list of research articles). 

Often referred to by acronyms such as EAP (Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy) and EFL (Equine Facilitated Learning), these approaches can give clients the opportunity to interact and form relationships with horses, and to learn from these experiences in a way that involves them physically, emotionally and mentally. Lessons learnt in this holistic way can be more easily absorbed and remembered, resulting in lasting and positive changes that can be transferred to the world of human-human relating.

Equine therapies aim to provide alternative therapeutic and learning opportunities through experiences with horses alongside specialist practitioners. EAP utilises equine-facilitated activities to explore the way a client sees and relates to themselves and others, their patterns of behaviour and survival as well as their gifts and strengths, and may include the exploration of past experiences and traumas. EFL focuses on equine-facilitated activities as a tool for self-development and education, with a focus on the present moment.

Skills include non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem-solving, leadership, teamwork, relationship skills, confidence and resilience.

Why horses?

Many parallels can be drawn between humans and horses. Like humans, horses are social animals who communicate primarily through body language; however, being prey animals, horses are much more sensitive to even small changes in their companion’s body language. Horses are non-judgemental which can make it easier for clients to feel safe enough to build a trusting relationship with them, than they would with a therapist in talking therapy. In a therapy room, there are often expectations of the roles taken by client and counsellor. Outside in the equine therapy session, these roles are not as clear, leaving a more even playing field (no pun intended!).

What is a session like?

Sessions start off with some work helping the client to become more embodied. This often takes the form of a ‘body scan’ where the client takes a ‘walk though the body’. The client is invited to notice, without judgement, anything that may come into their consciousness; this may include colours, sights, sounds or smells. We are teaching the client to develop their ability to use their body as a sensing device. Horses communicate using non-verbal skills and are sensitive to any incongruence in humans. When we are in our heads worrying about something then the horses can sense incongruence – incongruence is a form of lie, and that is what predators do; this leads horses to avoid someone who displays this behaviour. In order to form a relationship with the horse, the client needs to learn to be in the moment within their body and still their mind.

The sessions can involve planned activities such as obstacle course or grooming, but often the horses know exactly what that client needs and have their own agenda. This brings to mind a particular session where a client and I were talking about how to get people to do things that they don’t want to do. I had set out a wonderful obstacle course to do some work with, but can you guess what happened when we went to catch the horses? Letting go of my ego and trusting the horses lead to a wonderful session, where the client explored issues around assertiveness and boundary setting in a way that gave them instant and valuable feedback.

Things to remember

  • Clients don’t need any previous experience with horses to try equine therapies, in fact sometimes it is those without previous experience that gain the most
  • There is no riding involved, all work is done on the ground
  • The horses are given the freedom to choose how they work and if they want to take part in a session or not
  • Very little talking is necessary, the horses possess an amazing ability to focus in on what the client needs, often without anything needing to be said
  • Sessions tend to last 90 minutes and can be weekly or spaced further apart
  • A course of treatment tends to last 8-10 weeks although this can be increased or decreased depending on the client
  • Equine therapy can be an excellent bridging therapy to help clients engage in more mainstream therapies

Next time you come across a horse or other four legged friend, perhaps consider that they could teach you more than you realise.