I first heard about equine therapy (aka equine-assisted psychotherapy) from a giant man in a cowboy hat sitting next to me on a flight from Salt Lake City to Denver. He was very tidy, I thought, for a cowboy, his flannel shirt tucked neatly into his pressed Wranglers, his hefty silver belt buckle sparkling from a recent shine. After the plane took off we started chatting and I asked him what he did for a living. “I’m a therapist,” he said. He didn’t look like a therapist to me, so I asked him what kind of therapy he did. “I specialize in equine therapy. We use horses to work with troubled youth.” As a therapist myself, I was skeptical. It seemed to me that this cowboy was just making up an excuse to force his hobby into his work—kind of like if I were to take clients skiing and call it slope-assisted therapy.
Since that airplane ride, though, I’ve had a chance to see equine therapy in action and I’m no longer a skeptic. Horses are used for transportation, recreation and ranch work. I’ve learned, however, that horses have also been used for many years to treat neuromuscular disorders, Alzheimer’s, autism and severe physical injuries. Most recently, horses have shown great talent as psychotherapy assistants. Like dogs, which are also used for certain types of therapy, horses are ideal therapeutic assistants because they are deeply embedded in our culture, relational and extremely trainable. Horses, however, are less cuddly and expressive than dogs and they are much larger. It turns out that these differences are part of what make horses particularly well suited for psychotherapeutic work.
Animals in General
Animals such as horses, dogs and cats, provide opportunities for relationship, but without the complexity or threat that can accompany human relationships. They can give and receive affection and are generally less prickly and socially demanding than people. Because of the built-in language barrier, animals require a quieter type of interaction that relies more on non-verbal cues than verbal instruction. Animals respond to our moods, our movements, our confidence level and our posture. For this reason, well-trained animals are often used as an adjunct to therapy in order to provide not only a safe forum for expressing and receiving affection, but for creating a more comfortable environment for the therapist and patient to connect and for practicing non-verbal ways of relating.
Equine therapists use metaphor as a central part of their therapeutic approach. Patients are tasked with certain types of interactions with the horse—from simply approaching the horse to grooming it to leading it to riding it—and these interactions are then debriefed. Did the horse approach the patient or walk away? Did the horse become agitated or calm? How did the horse’s response mirror one’s own emotions and how is it similar to the responses one typically receives from other people? Because horses do not interact with the same expectations or judgments that we expect from other people, patients can assess their relationship with the horse without the fear of rejection. Each new interaction represents a fresh opportunity to engage the relationship differently. This creates a safe context for reflecting on one’s own moods, feelings and relational effectiveness, and for trying out new relational skills. With the help of a human equine therapist, then, these human-horse interactions become powerful metaphors for human relationships and situations.
Horses are huge and powerful, and they’re not automatically compliant. As such, they require our respect. Even the swagger of a cocky teenager is no match for the sheer size and power of a horse. Equine therapy clients quickly learn that managing an animal of this size requires a balance of confidence and humility, of firmness and gentleness. This requirement is particularly useful for young people who struggle with impulsivity, low self-esteem or anxiety. Failures to simultaneously put the horse at ease and earn its respect generally lead to frustrating equine non-compliance. Seemingly simple tasks such as approaching the horse or putting on its halter require a high level of awareness—both of oneself and of the horse. As in real life situations involving something bigger than ourselves, awareness is often the best antidote for fear and humility is often the precursor to authentic confidence.
Horses are not as clearly expressive as other domestic animals or humans. Dogs wag their tails, bark, lick and growl. People smile, laugh, shout and gesture. Horses, don’t emote so visibly. Because of this, horses rely upon and require more intuitive ways of interacting. To a large extent, horses force us to set the relational tone, since we often cannot immediately tell how a horse feels. Our own confidence or fear, calm or agitation, sadness or enthusiasm, are generally what dictates the kind of interaction we’ll have with a given horse. Horses are smart and sensitive, so even though we might struggle to read our equine friends’ moods, they have no trouble reading ours. Interacting well with a horse requires a therapy client to engage with a clear sense of purpose, an awareness of her own mood and the ability to express clearly in non-verbal ways. It also requires that she convey a sense of confidence and authority, but in a non-threatening way.
These interactions also require the client to cultivate a more intuitive approach to reading others, since horses emote and communicate very subtly. Equine-therapy clients are given tasks to perform with their horse that requires mostly non-verbal communication. Both successes and failures—e.g. the horse did or did not follow instructions or respond as intended—are debriefed with the therapist to help the client understand what she is feeling and how these feelings are being communicated non-verbally. Many clients become aware of anger or fear or sadness that they unwittingly communicate through body language to the horse. Not only does this help the client process those emotions, but it also helps her practice more effective ways of communicating.