• Equine facilitated psychotherapy encourages mindfulness, authenticity and connection

  • Counsellor Lucy McGroarty explores the benefits and how this type of therapy works

  • You can find equine facilitated therapists on welldoing.org – find yours here 

For hundreds of years human and horse have shared a connection. In fact horseback riding was recognised for its therapeutic potential as far back as ancient Greece. More recent research has shown that the relationship between us goes far deeper than a ride in the saddle.

Horses, a natural prey animal, have a strong instigative emotional sense which is communicated within the herd and is imperative for their survival. For example, a horse that senses another horses fear will acknowledge the fear too and thus activate the internal alarm system which allows him to get away from danger.

When we approach a horse, we too become one of his herd. The horse will naturally tune into our emotions, body language and energy and respond to not what we try to portray e.g. brave and unafraid, but respond instead to what is really being felt, what is being hidden and pushed down – perhaps fear and uncertainty.  Horses for this reason can become our emotional mirror and can prove invaluable in helping clients identify their authentic feelings and make sense of them.

Unlike humans, horses naturally and instinctively pick up on the ‘unsaid’ and react to what they feel rather than what is seen.

What is equine facilitated psychotherapy (EFP)?

Equine facilitated psychotherapy is just that. A therapy facilitated by the horse.

The client is invited to participate in different activities working alongside the horse which allow the opportunity to pay attention to the different emotions and behaviours the activities may provoke. These interactions help us make better sense of the feelings we have, our external responses to them and provide us with a better understanding of the relationships we have in the world.

In EFP the ‘human therapist’ assists with the process but is predominantly an observer and encourages reflection of the experience once it has ended. The therapist might notice the horses reaction at certain points of the activities and may share their observations with the client to help the client unravel what was being felt by them at that moment in time. This can help the client process any very difficult feelings by aligning their experiences with that of those of the horse.


Who does equine facilitated therapy help 

How often I meet clients who have become so well rehearsed at wearing a mask that they have stopped noticing the person behind it. Identity becomes a confusing word and is replaced instead with an internal need to please others, conform and not make a fuss. Confidence becomes unnoticed and neglected at the bottom of a pile. An underlying fear of rejection or a belief of not being good enough becomes the driver dictating which mask they should wear today or who to please and which situations they should avoid. 

Horses live in the moment, respond to what is being communicated non-verbally and never lie. They are keen observers, vigilant and curious and hold no expectation. This natural behaviour offers an opportunity of connection and understanding. A well-practiced ‘mask wearer’ can send a confusing message to a horse and he may respond in a way that says ‘I’m not sure about you’. Therefore, the invitation to bring the clients authentic self into the relationship can be a significant step for a client who has learnt to cut off aspects of themselves. To be accepted unconditionally may be something some of us have never experienced and entering into this new world can be extremely powerful.

EFP is a therapeutic approach that anyone can participate in. Children and teens who may find traditional room-based counselling overwhelming can benefit hugely from the freedom of being outdoors and find peace in the knowledge that they are not alone in the session but instead accompanied by a rather large but completely accepting companion. Children from as young as six up to adults in their 90s can benefit from this approach to therapy. Equine facilitated psychotherapy has helped many people, including those struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, loss, relationships, illness, phobias and self-esteem issues.

Have you ever watched a horse peacefully eating the grass in his paddock then suddenly he’s galloping across his field as a bird has shot out of a bush and spooked him? Two minutes later he is calm again. The fear is gone and he settles back into his eating. He doesn’t over think what has happened, he doesn't worry if it might happen again. He isn’t wondering what he did wrong to the bird that upset him. He doesn't pace his fence line in a rage.

He is present in the here-and-now, eating his grass in the moment. The threat has passed. He is OK. He is at peace.

Lucy McGroarty is a verified welldoing.org counsellor in Milton Keynes, Leighton Buzzard and online

Further reading

Equine therapy: not all therapists have two legs

Trying different types of therapy

Why being outside is so good for mental health

Pet bereavement: why it's never 'just an animal'

11 ways getting a dog helped with my bereavement