WHAT IS EQUINE ASSISTED LEARNING?
Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) are experiential approaches designed to help clients identify, face, and work through life issues. Clients dealing with mental health issues who are often treated with traditional counseling practices, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief, addiction, and behavior modification, may be excellent candidates for EAP. EAL is similar to EAP, but the focus is more toward education and skill enhancement. EAL programs often focus on social skills and leadership development. EAL is very useful when working with groups from schools or the corporate world.
EAP and EAL utilize a different approach than traditional therapeutic horsemanship programs in that the clients do not ride. The horses play a completely different role in the therapeutic process. The goal of EAP and EAL is for clients to interact with horses from the ground, observe the horses’ reactions to them and then identify ways these reactions could be metaphors representing something going on in the client’s life.
Horses are very intuitive creatures and possess an acute sense of awareness to everything that is going on in their environment. They are extremely sensitive to the actions of humans and have the uncanny ability to pick up on our non-verbal behavior. Horses are completely honest in the way they react to situations. They cannot lie or gauge their reactions to spare anyone’s feelings. Therefore, horses are a fantastic instrument to use when getting a “read” on what is going on with a client. Horses are particularly useful with clients who are unable or unwilling to communicate their thoughts and/or feelings verbally.
Benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy
In light of research and observational findings, experts suggest that Equine Therapy, a common form of animal-assisted therapy, may yield a variety of psychotherapeutic benefits in the following domains:
Trust: The first step in Equine Assisted Therapy is to trust the horse, the therapist, and yourself. This is a profound step towards growth in interpersonal relationships and healing. Learning to trust an animal such as a horse is very powerful in the development and restoration of trust for those whose ability to trust has been violated by difficult life experiences.
Anxiety Reduction: Research on the human-animal interaction indicate that contact with animals and horses significantly reduces physiological anxiety levels.
Depression and decreasing Isolation: Depression is frequently associated with feeling rejected by peers, feeling different from peers, and feeling left out. Depression is an intrinsically isolating experience. The horse’s unconditional acceptance non-verbally encourages clients back into the camaraderie of life to engage in positive social interactions that decrease depression and isolation.
Mindfulness: Equine Assisted Therapy integrates mindfulness at almost every step as the client learns to be present, in the moment, calm, centered, focused, and fully engaged. Horses are very sensitive and pick up on others' emotions quickly, and accurately reflect these feelings in mirroring ways to the client. With mindfulness, the client is able to learn new, positive ways of being, which has a significant impact on cognition, feelings, and behaviors associated with depression, anxiety, trauma, obsessions, impulsivity, emotional regulation, and other mental health issues.
Self-Esteem: Clients’ confidence is enhanced as they challenge themselves to learn and master new skills. They improve their ability to tackle new projects and challenges in a natural, non-competitive, and non-judgmental environment, which leads to improved confidence, self-assurance, and self-esteem.
Impulse Regulation: Children and teens who struggle with impulse control and emotional regulation can benefit tremendously from Equine-Assisted Therapy. The need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively promotes the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Equine-Assisted Therapy is effective in reducing children's irritability, agitation, and impulsivity, and increases cooperation, emotional regulation, capacity for delay, and behavioral control.
Self-Efficacy: Experiencing success with challenging exercises and goal focused activities in non-verbal ways fosters initiative, problem-solving, and renewed internal feelings of self-efficacy. Experiences of “I did it!” replace feelings of helplessness and lack of motivation, empowering the client to take on challenges in many areas of coping and healing.
Positive Identity: As the horse and therapist work in close alliance with the client, a gradual sense of acceptance and feeling 'liked' emerges to enhance the client's positive self-concept and identity. The client bonds with the horse to create a positive and healthy relationship that fosters the child's identity and self-definition.
Communication: Learning to communicate and achieve harmony with a large animal promotes intuition, stepping outside of one's comfort zone, and patience. Horses’ sensitivity to non-verbal communication assists clients to develop greater awareness of their emotions, the non-verbal cues that they may be communicating, and the critical role of non-verbal communication in relationships.
Growth With Nature: Through Equine Assisted Therapy children and adolescents have a unique opportunity to encounter the outdoors from a new perspective. Feelings of joy and connection are often discovered or revived as children experience nature’s beauty in a renewed way. Especially for children and teenagers, engaging in therapy in a more natural, peaceful, outdoor environment greatly enhances the benefits of therapy.
Self-Acceptance: Many clients are initially concerned that they will do something embarrassing while learning about and interacting with the horses. Fears of embarrassment in public are thereby often reduced and self-acceptance increased. Children and adolescents also learn that progress is a journey, and self-acceptance for every phase of that journey is critical to resilience.
Social Skills: Equine Assisted Therapy supports clients in learning appropriate non-verbal and verbal communication, receiving and understanding positive and negative feedback, reciprocity in relationships, assertiveness, initiative, and engagement. It is very powerful in moving children who are socially isolated or withdrawn to a more open, positive, and appropriate social platform. A positive relationship with a horse is often the first, safe step toward practicing the social skills needed to initiate closer relationships with people, learn trust, and engage in social reciprocity.
Assertiveness: Working effectively with a large animal can be intimidating and Equine Assisted Therapy provides the foundation for clients to learn how to be more assertive, clear, and directive. Communicating effectively with a horse and engaging in challenging exercises that include the horse foster the client to demonstrate initiation, assertiveness, and direction; all important skills that enable them to express their needs and feelings more effectively in relationships.
Boundaries: Many clients have experienced prior relationships as controlling, traumatic, conflictual, or untrustworthy. Healing takes place as they discover that the relationship with horses occurs within the context of a healthy, safe, and mutually respectful relationship between themselves and the horse.
Creativity and Spontaneity: Many children with socio-emotional difficulties may be emotionally inhibited, rigid, or despondent, and are likely to have lost some sense of spontaneity. The creativity, spontaneity, and playful aspects of Equine Assisted Therapy and equine activities can help restore spontaneity, creativity, and ability for healthy recreation and play.
Perspective and Giving: Through grooming activities and caring for the horse, clients are able to learn to give, nurture, connect, and put aside the absorbing focus of their struggles, self-defeating thoughts, negative, sad emotions, and anxious ruminations, and instead direct their attention and thoughts externally toward safe and caring interactions.