“To create an effective learning experience, therapists must “trust the process” between the horse(s) and the client(s) and allow successes as well as failures, frustrations, and discouragements to happen naturally.” - EAGALA
Trusting the process is an easy thing to say and all EAGALA professionals know this is what we need to do. Doing it though, can be a difficult thing. We can have a session that is planned down to the last letter, or a freer flowing, “let’s see what happens” session, though we know (based on all previous experience) that we cannot predict what the horses or the client will do.
In a session we asked a client to build a space representing something to them and that it would be large enough for a horse to enter. The client spent time building a space but seemed reluctant and slow and sat down for a time in the space. He said “I want to shut them out (of the space).” The arena had plant borders on 3 sides and electric fence tape on one side.
He attempted to move a small brown horse into the space and it moved into the space and straight out again. He tried a larger white horse and it went towards the space but not in.
After this, the small brown horse and the larger white horse were walking along the fence line looking over the fence tape. The small brown horse was looking under the fence tape.
Before we knew it, the small brown horse put its head under the tape and ran out of the area knocking the fence down. The larger white horse ran jumping over the fence on the ground to join the small brown horse. The other horses in the field next to the arena, ran to the fence to join them. The horses appeared anxious whilst doing this, and all of us (client and mental health specialist) brought the horses back to the area. The client held the small brown horse whilst we were doing this. He admitted to having a panic attack and said he was having them throughout the session. He spent some time with the small brown horse and the larger white horse and we ended the session soon after this. He also mentioned that he thought the horses were saying, “get the hell away from here”.
The client was very anxious and wanted to “shut the horses out”, the horses were anxious and wanted to “get the hell away from there”. What ended up happening was the action of the horses leaving seemed to “break” the tension of the situation and allow a shift to happen. The clients panic changed to “real” fear and a need to “help” some panicking horses. He was able to process this further later and look at what it meant for him.
I'm fascinated to understand why we are continually surprised that the horses and clients come together with the process unfolding however it does. The horses are always in the present and always respond to whatever is happening in the "here and now".
So the consistent reminders by the horses (and the clients, often) to “trust the process” will likely be always needed in the work, despite knowing this is what we must do.
1. Identifying and Coping with Feelings
Many people struggling with mental health issues have learned that feeling is painful. They may attempt in different ways, to numb sadness, anger, fear or even joy. For therapy to be successful, one of the first steps is learning to identify, experience and cope with emotions without trying to escape.
Equine therapy is a powerful way to get in touch with thoughts and feelings. Instead of using their minds to address problems, which often leads to denial, blaming others or intellectualizing their way around the problem, they use their bodies and hearts to feel and react in the moment.
Horses have a unique ability to sense emotions and react accordingly. If someone is angry or aggressive, the horse may become obstinate. If the person is anxious, the horse may get skittish. But when approached by someone who is open and calm, the horse is more likely to respond in kind. Witnessing the horse’s response promotes self-awareness and can help people see themselves in a more realistic way.
2. Communication Skills
Through working with horses, people recognize their patterns of interacting with others. Horses do not speak, but they are excellent communicators. Learning to understand horse behaviour can help people learn how others function in the world and the way their behaviour impacts others.
In equine therapy, people talk about what they see and feel. Through the horse’s responses and the therapist’s guidance, they begin to recognize the ways in which their perceptions are accurate or misguided, and the ways they may be projecting their own issues onto others.
3. Setting Boundaries
Working with a horse can quickly expose a person’s unhelpful thought and behaviour patterns. In an equine therapy session, facilitators may draw metaphors between the client’s interaction with the horse and the patterns in their own lives, addressing difficult issues. Lessons may be as simple as how much physical space the horse needs to feel comfortable.
Without any words at all, horses make clear when someone has crossed their boundaries. Trying to control or dominate will not work with a horse. Similarly, being extremely detached or passive can make it difficult to lead a horse and will deter the horse from complying with a request.
4. Overcoming Fears
Horses are large animals, which can bring up unmet needs, fears, past trauma, and feelings of inadequacy or lack of control. Regardless of the horse, people commonly fear that the horse won’t like them, won’t pick them, or could hurt them physically or emotionally. Rather than giving in to their usual reaction – to escape or get defensive – people learn to tolerate and process the emotion.
In a safe environment, clients learn to face their fears and build confidence in their ability to overcome challenges. People who are intimidated and nervous at first may be surprised to discover how quickly they can process those feelings and find comfort in their relationship with the horse. Empowered by the experience, people may develop the confidence to address other fears and transfer these lessons to day-to-day life.
Clients don’t have to love horses or have experience working with animals in order to benefit from equine therapy. They simply have to be willing to give treatment a chance and move in a different direction than they have in the past.
Horses are soothing, gentle animals. They are straightforward in their interactions without lying or manipulating. They do not judge or blame. Their presence alone can be immensely healing.