Equines for Therapy
Equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) combines traditional therapy with equine therapy to achieve wonderful results. It is yet to get its due recognition. Emily Swisher, certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning through PATH Intl, spoke to LA POLO.
Expert Emily Swisher explains the process of equine facilitated psychotherapy (EFP): “The process combines traditional talk therapy with the direct interaction of a horse; in essence, a prey animal continually seeking peace and safety. We utilize physical cues from the animal, who is unable to use the traditional social defenses we humans do, is non-judgemental, but gives honest feedback. Using this feedback, we can gain insights on how we present to others, manage conflict, store tension, and communicate. As the client is speaking and interacting with the horse, the therapist is monitoring the horse for signs of relaxation or agitation to relay the client.”
One wonders why horses are used for therapeutic purposes. Is the ability of emotional bonding of a horse the reason? “EFP can be especially powerful for trauma work. We need to be emotionally and behaviourally regulated while working with prey animals, who are continually seeking safety and peace. When a traumatic incident occurs, it activates our body’s fight-or-flight system. Persons with trauma will experience high anxiety, paranoia, and restlessness, as their body is continually anticipating danger. In grooming and practicing deep breathing around the horses, we get immediate feedback from their body language and behaviour as to whether they feel safe around us. That biofeedback is used to help the client recognize where they are holding onto tension, if they are breathing effectively, or if they too feel safe. In riding horses during a therapy session, the consistent movement and rhythm at the walk can help stimulate both hemispheres of brain, helping to undo some of the more physiological processes of trauma.”
Equine facilitated psychotherapy works primarily through feedback: one learns to observe mindfully how the equine partner is responding, and that reflects her inner state. Swisher agrees: “Equine facilitated psychotherapy is experiential, we are actively participating in interactions and activities as they relate to the issues the client is seeking therapy for. For example, conflict in a relationship can be processed using different horsemanship skills of getting the horse to move or comply using our body language. How a person approaches this challenge will tell me a great deal of whether they are confrontational or submissive, and how they react when they are struggling with an outcome. Relaying that information back to the client, will bring awareness to their relational issues and they can change their demeanor for a more effective outcome.” Hence, it differs from regular therapy and as you listen and respond, it works organically.
Because the human mind is so intricate and unique, there’s no cookie cutter path of therapy for all. Throwing light on who can benefit from EFP, she says: “Anyone who enjoys being around animals, is looking for an alternative therapy approach, or wanting unbiased feedback of themselves. Most of my client referrals are for children and adolescents who are resistant to traditional office-based therapy. Talking with an adult can be intimidating to most children and the horse can be a nice buffer to break the tension. I also see a lot of women who have endured physical and emotional trauma. Being around the horses can help significantly with self-regulation, which has been altered after a traumatic experience.”
Contrary to popular beliefs, not all therapies with horses require riding, though at first it was riding that was roped into traditional therapies of military veterans during WWI. Riding helps autistic people for instance, but EFP relies on horse care skills instead. Swisher says: “While each equine facilitated psychotherapist will have different approaches on whether they allow mounted work, I tend to focus the majority of our client interaction working on horse care and groundwork. Building a relationship and gaining horsemanship skills are part of our therapeutic process and I want to be sure the horse is never being used as a tool, but more of an active partner throughout the process. Riding can be extremely powerful in building self-confidence and stimulating for working through traumas.”
Swisher tells LA POLO: “I notice changes in the individual in each session with the horse. Learning emotional self-regulation skills by watching the horse’s body language and breathing is usually instilled after the first session. Learning a new skill and developing a relationship with a horse takes roughly one month before I notice an increase in positive self-esteem.”
Which horses are suitable for EFP? “Typically, horses that are looking for their second career and are being retired from a more athletic discipline make wonderful therapy animals. These horses are still looking for purpose and engagement, even if they cannot be ridden to the extent they once were. Just as humans, horses have their own personalities and temperaments that can be useful, but I prefer curious horses with a calm demeanor,” says Swisher.
Replying to whether this method is independent or a gateway for further and other different therapies, she says: “Equine facilitated psychotherapy can be an independent form of psychotherapy, especially for children, but it is largely used in addition to other forms of therapy. I always preface that EFP is not appropriate for anyone actively in crisis or cannot behaviourally self-regulate to keep themselves safe around the animals. I balance my adult clients between the barn and my office, as the office can be more beneficial to process verbally, while our sessions at the barn then applies those insights into our interactions with the horses.”
LA POLO asked if a horse can bond with a new counselee effectively when a bond is already forged with another and therefore do they need a “break”? “I will typically only use a horse back-to-back for two sessions before they lose interest and need a mental break. We tend to select horses for our herd that are more curious, as they tend to enjoy different interactions from people, as long as that person is congruent in their emotions and behaviours.”
Because horses are so responsive, do they ever react violently when they are alarmed or sense tension? “I have never had a horse react violently, but they will show warning signs or choose to disengage from the client. My job is to recognize the subtle cues and warning signs from the horse to relay that to the client and to be an advocate for the horse should we need to discontinue our activity with the animal if they are becoming agitated.”
It is not unnatural to worry about the safety of the horse involved, especially around a new counselee. Answering to whether such therapy sessions can affect the horse adversely, Swisher says: “Like humans, horses will burnout from a job they are not suitable for. We absolutely make sure the horse is interested and willing to do this work and has standards around how frequently they can be used and see that they are getting additional exercise and training for their wellbeing.”
Talking about the effectiveness of the process, Swisher says: “As long as the client is interested in the process and has a connection with their therapist, the success rate of equine facilitated psychotherapy is relatively high. Almost always, we see an improvement in self-esteem and effective communication, with a reduction in anxious and depressive symptoms. One of the biggest obstacles to the field is making sure the therapist has substantial training in psychotherapy and horsemanship. While being around horses is therapeutic, we have to be mindful about ensuring the process is consistent with other psychotherapy modalities.”
Perhaps one can link psychotherapy methods like EFP with traditional beliefs of healing through nature. Many ancient tribes and cultures around the world believed in the healing properties of horse riding. It is the empathy of a fellow creature, albeit one who is so distinctly and almost incomprehensively different from us, that is being used to heal a disturbed mind.