I had the privilege of spending four days at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Academy in Old Lyme, Connecticut to complete the Equine Specialist in Mental health and learning (ESMHL) certification workshop. This certification is offered through PATH Intl. which stands for Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship. PATH Intl. is an international credentialing organization that accredits centers, instructors, and equine specialists in therapeutic horsemanship practices. Upon completion of this certification, I am driven to design, develop and deliver an effective equine-assisted psychotherapy program here at Full Circle Counseling and CFC Loud N Clear.
As a passionate clinician, I am constantly researching therapeutic practices and interventions to help my clients to reach and sustain wellness. However, sometimes talk-therapy and traditional modalities fail. It is in these moments that I find myself wondering, “where do my client and I go from here?” “How can I help my client heal, when his/her trauma is just too difficult to talk about?” Reflecting on my own experience with horses and the workshop at High Hopes, I realize that horses are the missing piece.
When I was researching equine studies during graduate school I came about the powerful words of Carl Jung, the renowned psychiatrist and psychotherapist. Jung says, the horse encompasses many characteristics of humanity’s most longed for paradox; immense strength, power, and physicality as well as unconditional love, acceptance, and humility. This revelation seems to solidify why the ancient Greeks identified the horse as the messenger and healer of the gods. The horse is a mirror into our soul. During the four-day workshop, I experienced the significant benefit of horses in the treatment of mental health disorders. I saw how horses are being used in partnership with a therapist to help clients with different mental health diagnoses improve their quality of life. From Autism Spectrum Disorder to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to Addiction, horses are changing lives. So, what is it that horses can do that humans cannot? Well in fact a lot.
Since horses are prey animals, they are extremely intuitive and aware of their environment. Horses sense and feel everything. Thus, in the terms of therapy, horses provide real time bio-feedback. They are a mirror into our client’s inner soul. For example, when a client presents incongruent, forming a relationship with a horse is nearly impossible because the client is presenting in a manner that is different from what the horse senses on the inside. Thus, the horse feels threatened and will shy away. This is a crucial moment for the counselor and client to explore this interaction. The counselor may say “Sam what do you think is causing Cassini (horse) to move away from you today?” The horse is a window into our client’s true thoughts, feelings, worries and fears.
Additionally, due to the size of a horse, they can be viewed as intimidating or frightening. For a client that struggles with low self-esteem, isolation or negative sense of self, forming a relationship with a horse is very empowering. During this process, the client builds confidence, understands and implements healthy boundaries, learns to self-regulate and identifies his/her strengths. Lastly, horses live in the present moment; if they feel safe, they will love unconditionally; they have no hidden agendas or expectations. They do not care about a person’s past, they accept humans as they are, flaws and all. For many clients who have been shamed, judged, violated, or hurt experiencing this genuine love and acceptance is often unimaginable.
My goal as an Equine Specialist is to provide my clients with the opportunity to experience the healing power of horses:
Individual Equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions
Group: “Horse Wisdom for Women”- 4-week program offered for women who are in recovery for addiction. Goals: to improve self-esteem and self-confidence, understand healthy boundaries and learn basic life skills.