Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is a powerfully effective approach that has an incredible impact on individuals, youth, families, and groups. It incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning. Through experiential learning, EAP is a collaborative effort between a mental health professional and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals.

Experiential Modality

Incorporating horses for growth and learning is an experiential modality. This means that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing (or discussing) thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and patterns.

According to the Association for Experiential Education the principles of experiential practice are:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the client to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the client is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and considering meaning.
  • Clients are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results fo the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: client to self, client to others and client to the world at large.
  • The client may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking, and uncertainty because the outcomes of experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured to explore and examine personal values.
  • The facilitator’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posting problems, setting boundaries, support clients, ensuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The facilitator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Facilitators strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the client
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes.

This list from the www.aee.org website explains the basic learning process of EAP. While experiential approaches can be conducted in a variety of settings, using unlimited tools, EAP has the added advantage of utilizing horses, dynamic and powerful living beings, who enhance the experiential process.

Why Horses?

Those who are familiar with horses recognize and understand the power of horses to influence people in incredibly powerful ways. Developing relationships, training, horsemanship instruction, and caring for horses naturally affects the people involved in a meaningful way.

The benefits of the work ethic, responsibility, assertiveness, communication, and healthy relationships have long been recognized. Horses naturally provide these benefits.

Horses are large and powerful, which creates a natural opportunity for some to overcome fear and develop confidence. The size and power for the horse are naturally intimidating to many people. Accomplishing a task involving the horse, in spite of those fears, creates confidence and provides for wonderful metaphors when dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations in life.

Horses are very much like humans in that they are social animals. They have defined roles within their herds. They would rather be with their peers. They have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods. An approach that seems to work with one horse does not necessarily with another. At times, they seem stubborn and defiant. They like to have fun. In other words, horses provide vast opportunities for metaphorical learning. Using metaphors, in discussion or activity, is an effective technique when working with even the most challenging individuals or groups.

Horses require work, whether in caring for them or working with them. In an era when immediate gratification and the “easy way” are the norm, horses require people to be engaged in physical and mental work to be successful, a valuable characteristic in all aspects for life.

What is the role of the horse in an EAP session? Horses are sensitive to non-verbal communication and respond to what messages the clients give them in the moment. These responses give the client and the treatment team information – information that brings awareness of current patterns and motivates change to new ones. Many clients will complain, “The horse is stubborn. The horse doesn’t like me,” etc. But the lesson to be learned is that if they change themselves, the horses respond differently.

The horse is an integral part of EAP. If an activity is conducted that could be equally effective without the horse, then it isn’t truly EAP. Likewise, if the facilitators are working harder than the horses, or having more interaction with the horses than the clients, then it isn’t EAP. EAP is about the horses doing the work of effecting change in people’s lives – it is about the relationship between the horses and clients, not the relationship between the facilitators and clients. The facilitators are there to provide the opportunities and bring consciousness to the lessons being learned.

(The preceding information was excerpted from the Fundamentals of EAGALA Model Practice)

Proper training and certification for those EAP facilitators are essential to meet insurance liability requirements; as well as the requirements of most funding sources. The standard for National and International training and certification has been set by EAGALA.