How can Equine Therapy help me get better?
During a session the horses will play out behaviours that mirror what a person is feeling, termed by some scientists as affect contagion, the unconscious transfer of feeling between living things. The horses will often resort to repeating certain gestures or patterns of movement so as to emphasise unconscious behaviours that may need addressing. They will react when a person acknowledges a feeling that has been suppressed resulting in blood pressure changes in both person and horse.
The facilitators are watching closely to capture each and every reaction of the horses. When the horses enact a change of dynamic, exhibit a pattern of behaviour or react uncharacteristically the facilitators will bring this to the attention of the client and offer them the opportunity to investigate parallels to their own life. As an example (A) from a pivotal point of a recent therapy session;
“After a period of activity, I noticed that the horses stood very still and close to you, with their heads low. What was that about?” - FACILITATOR
“I realised that amongst all the anxiety there was deep sadness. I felt I needed to stop for a moment rather than trying so hard to get rid of the feeling. The horses seemed to be telling me that that was okay and, for the first time, it actually was” - CLIENT A
And another example (B):
“I noticed that one of the horses was repeatedly nudging you with his nose and followed you very closely everywhere you went. What was going on for you when this was happening?” - FACILITATOR
“It reminded me of how other people treat me. Constantly badgering me for stuff and stepping into my space. Maybe I need to be clearer about my boundaries and think about what I want instead for a change ” - CLIENT B
From a herd perspective, the horses are simply attempting to bring about harmony by ensuring the emotional stability and congruence of each member of their herd - even if that member is only a weekly visitor. When there is harmony they can relax and go back to grazing. When they sense an imbalance or difficulty of some kind, such as unresolved trauma or emotional turmoil, their innate reaction is to bring this to the awareness of the person so as to bring about a change and a return to harmony.
From an attachment perspective, there is evidence to support that animals are capable of fulfilling safe-haven and secure-base functions. In therapy sessions people often gravitate towards one of the horses over the others. Equally the horses seem to ‘choose’ who is most suitable for the role sometimes resorting to defending their position with the other horses by chasing them away from the person. Studies have shown that bonds with animals can be experienced as a more secure bond than that of a romantic partner. Research into the existence of morphic fields confirms this invisible, yet deeply connected bond.
From a biological perspective, the horses are reacting to changes in blood pressure, heart rate, body posture and breathing patterns - just as detectable from the far side of the paddock as they are up close with the client. A horse’s heart has an electromagnetic field that is not only stronger than ours - able to reach up to 50 feet around them compared to ours that has a range of 8-10 feet - it has also been proven to have a direct influence on own heart rhythm.
If you consider that a horse can sense if a nearby predator is either hungry or has recently eaten - forcing a critical split second decision on whether to flee or go back to grazing - it’s easy to see how these refined sensory skills can be applied in the interaction with a person.
There are two overarching principles that allow Equine Assisted Psychotherapy to help people overcome emotional difficulties and mental health disorders. The first principle - often covered in the first session(s) - is called Reconnection. It is the process of getting through multiple layers of subconscious thought to enable the client to see their situation clearly. The second principle - often covered in subsequent sessions and sometimes fully integrated within the first - is called New Pathways. This allows clients to experience new ways of being and behaving in order to affect change in their lives. This is what psychotherapists term, experiential learning.
As an example, Reconnection may reveal itself as the need to set boundaries of personal space (reference example B above) and New Pathways may involve setting these boundaries with the horses and seeing their reaction to develop a greater sense of self within relationships.
There is evidence to suggest that clients notice change over a much shorter period of time when compared to traditional therapy models. EAGALA, the Equine Assisted Growth & Learning Association recommends programs of approximately four to six weeks at weekly intervals with sessions lasting for one hour each.
Hatty Bowles, Integrative Child Psychotherapist notes;
‘I am struck by how quickly the horses seem to reach the core of the feelings brought by the client and the profound meaning this can bring to surface as a result’.
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