For many parents of children with special or different needs, the thought of letting them near a large animal such as a horse may be an alarming one. However, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) are increasingly gaining recognition as a powerful tool.
For the advocates and practitioners of EAP, the biggest challenge is the lack of credibility afforded to it as a recognised and worthy intervention. It is often seen as a ‘fluffy’ alternative to traditional therapies, but those involved are eager to challenge these preconceptions and demonstrate that this therapy has very real results — and not just for ‘horsey people’.
Keen to learn more about the potential benefits of EAP, I went behind the scenes with two non-equestrian families and their EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) counsellors.
Horses gained popularity as a physiotherapy tool in the 1950s in Germany and Austria but their therapeutic qualities have been highlighted since much earlier — Hippocrates was espousing the physical benefits of working with horses as far back as ~400 BC. Fast forward to 2016 and the relationship between human and horse has evolved to incorporate psychological therapy.
Many people are surprised to hear that horses are being used as an aid in psychological processes, partly because their size can be intimidating. But Jo Beirne, a qualified EAP counsellor with more than 300 hours of 1-2-1 counselling experience, believes that anxiety around horses can often be beneficial.
“The nervousness can be used metaphorically and could be important for bringing feelings very quickly to the surface,” she says. “Task-led exercises are used to help the client work through their fear, leading to large boosts in self-confidence and feelings of self-empowerment.”
Beirne admits she herself was intimidated by the animals prior to becoming a practising EAP professional: “I had no equestrian background. I was actually very scared of horses. After one day of attending a Certificate Professional Development day, my fear was reduced and I was astounded at the impact this had.”
Indeed, one of the biggest misconceptions surrounding EAP is that it requires people to be familiar with equestrianism. “We are not there to teach horsemanship skills,” said Tracie Holroyd from Tamworth Counselling Services.
“Most of our clients have not had any prior interactions with horses. Activities might be created to meet the needs, aims and objectives of the participant but at all times we are there to help create emotional and physical safety. Our objective is to learn about the clients through our observations of the horses and the people. The focus is not on the completion of the task, so someone who is nervous or apprehensive might have a different process than someone who feels confident around horses. Neither has a better or worse experience.”
As a herd animal, horses desire company and often exhibit a similar social behaviour to humans’. Holroyd found that the observation of a couple of horses’ social behaviour helped trigger the start of a positive transformation in one of her clients.
‘Client A’ was a 12-year-old boy who was left permanently at a residential unit—after being told he was off for a weekend away. He exhibited trust issues while at the unit and tormented older residents, who often retaliated, leaving him upset and physically hurt. Frustrated attempts by the case worker to stop this behaviour had been unsuccessful and progress via alternative methods had come to a standstill.
Holroyd and her team asked the boy to observe the behaviour of two horses and a pony that were usually kept apart but put together in the arena for the purpose of these sessions. The pony would approach the larger horses and attempt to bite and kick them. The horses, in turn, would hit back — causing the pony to squeal and retreat. Observing this, the boy was able to recognise a parallel with the interaction between himself and other residents. His behaviour subsequently changed and, within three weeks, he had moved into a successful foster placement.
“No amount of telling this young person to change their behaviour had had any impact, but when he experienced and made the connection by himself, it had a huge, positive effect,” said Holroyd.
As a prey animal, horses have a heightened ability to respond to human body language, which can promote emotional growth and learning. Marylin Gilmour, mother to autistic eight-year-old Max, experienced this first hand when she attended her first session with counsellor Hannah Turrell at the Big Brown Horse facilities.
“Max’s first reaction to seeing the horses was a very firm ‘no’,” she said. “When they first came over to say hello, Max made it clear that he didn’t want them near him, so they backed off calmly and let him get on with what he was doing. Once in a while, one would go over to see how he was, then wandered off once they were happy that he was okay.”
Despite Max being the focus of the sessions, Marylin felt that the horses also helped relieve her anxieties during the session.
“While Max was upset at the beginning, a Shetland pony came over to nuzzle my hand. Every time I felt myself getting anxious about Max’s behaviour, there she’d be, right by me, encouraging me to pat her, and then going back to eating grass when I was settled.”
Despite Max’s initial hesitations, after two sessions, Gilmour noticed some positive developments.
“Max was so happy by the end of the [first] session, and in our second session he was positively gleeful,” she said. “He has gone from shouting ‘no, I don’t want!’ whenever he saw the horses, to going up for a cuddle and posing for the camera with a huge smile!”
Max is mostly non-verbal and fully supported at all times in a mainstream school with a specialised ASD base. It’s been a long road for Gilmour, with the diagnosis process beginning when Max was just two years old.
“Max needs a lot of visual support and encouragement, with structure and routine playing a large part in keeping him happy and relaxed,” Gilmour explained. “Through his school, he accesses speech and language therapy, music therapy, and also has input from occupational therapy both there and at home. He needs medication to help him sleep, and, with the help of a sleep counsellor, he finally started sleeping through the night when he was five-and-a-half.”
Gilmour hadn’t previously considered EAP as an option.“I wasn’t sure how well it would work for Max. He’s very insistent and vocal when he doesn’t want to do something. If you think a non-verbal child is a quiet child, let me tell you — this is not the case!”
However, she continues, “he has been much calmer at home after the sessions. Normally, after a ‘different day’, he is very wired and hyper, finding it difficult to stay asleep at night. However this hasn’t been an issue with the sessions, which I’m really amazed by.”
Another result of Max’s sessions was the impact they had on older brother Zack. Ten-year-old Zack takes on a lot for his age in his role as a young carer for his brother. “We are very much a team, Zack and I,” said Gilmour, who is a single mum. “He is an amazing support to me and a very attentive and helpful big brother to Max, so it was nice for him to be able to spend time with the horses and for the two of us to work out a few things together, like how to put on the halter and which brushes to use.
“Hannah asked Zack a lot of feeling-based questions. What did he think the horses were feeling when they reacted to each other, for example. It got him opening up a little more about these things which can be tricky for him at times as he tries to be the strong, sure one most of the time.”
For counsellors such as Holroyd and Turrell, one of the biggest challenges is persuading those in power to create more opportunities for people to participate in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning. Now, however, families like Gilmour’s are challenging the antiquated misconceptions of EAPL as a last resort, by demonstrating that the therapy has very real results, including greater self-awareness and self-esteem, an ability to create safer boundaries, lower anxiety, reduced anger and frustration, and problem solving techniques. “These are all transferable life skills in various areas of someone’s life,” said Holroyd.
Interested parties are able to self-refer and are welcome from all ages. Issues that can be addressed are anger, bereavement and loss, self-esteem, self-harm, childhood abuse, anxiety, relationships, communication, leadership, self-development and others. There is no age range for which this intervention is more (or less) effective. To learn more about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning, visit: