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Equine Assisted Therapy: "Horses are living, breathing biofeedback machines.”
“Horses are living, breathing biofeedback machines.”
Sitting in a small room with a stranger who is evaluating your problems at the worst time of your life can be daunting, uncomfortable and make you feel alone. It’s difficult to form a strong and trusting relationship with a counsellor who is busy, it can be hard to open up. This is why we’ve decided to highlight some unique forms of therapy. Imagine if you could have your therapy sessions with a counsellor and a horse in a judgement-free zone. Alternative forms of therapy are a great way for people to heal from the past, live in the moment and try to learn new tools to help manage their lives.
mindyourmind met with Sue Hatherell and Rebecca Brown to discuss what they offer at London Equine Assisted Therapy in London, ON. We also met the horses: they are beautiful, kind and surrounded by positive energy. Both Rebecca and Sue are certified through EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) which is the first Equine Therapy association. Rebecca was a social worker with CAS for over two decades. Sue owns the farm and horses where the therapy sessions are held. They were introduced through a friend in 2016 and started their partnership soon thereafter. They offer services at this location twice a week.
What is Equine Therapy and how does it differ from traditional therapies?
Equine Assisted Therapy uses a clinical model, the client will have goals, treatment plan, etc. They use a clinical model similar to a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which emphasizes that how you think influences how you react which influences how you behave. The horses are a part of what people are experiencing when they talk about their past. Horses can pick up on emotions (anxiety etc.) and respond to those emotions. They are prey animals so they need to pick up on these things in order to survive. Due to this sensitivity they are great at helping people calm down and regulate their emotions.
How does working with horses benefit someone who has endured trauma, lives with mental illness or has anxiety?
People with trauma and/or mental illness enjoy working with the horses because the animals are accepting, nonjudgmental and are non verbal. They don’t adhere to social contracts and they immediately connect with the person.
What benefits have you witnessed of your clients when they are communicating with a horse?
The most rewarding things we have witnessed is when clients say “I’ve been in therapy for years and I can never get passed these issues”. Equine therapy allows them to act out what they need to. For example, if someone is really stuck, they can go out in a field alone and using a whip they are able to unleash what is bothering them. This is a great activity if you are feeling angry.
What might surprise people about using Equine Therapy?
Anything can happen! Horses are mischievous, naughty and playful. They can do laps and bump the person in the direction they need to go during the session. Part of the sessions also include a range of tools/props to represent different things in the client’s life. One time, a client needed some grounding so the horse laid down and invited the client to lay down as well. This allowed them to lay together and cuddle. The horses just get it and every session there is an “aha” moment for the client which helps them process their current situations. The horses are capable of picking up on what the person needs in a short time.
What if a client is scared of horses? How can they participate?
Most people are scared when they start and that is a natural reaction. Horses are big and some can be unpredictable. People need to trust that the staff will keep them safe and that the horses can be trusted. When horses are scared they run away, this is a good metaphor for life as we often don’t listen to our gut and leave when we should. They can teach us boundaries and they force us to set our own personal boundaries even if we aren’t comfortable doing that. For example, getting a horse to stop licking you because you realize you don’t like it. When you set the boundaries you are teaching the horse how to treat you the way you want.
How can someone unsure of trying Equine Therapy access your service?
Call us, come for one session and we encourage you to give it a try once and see how comfortable you feel. There has to be trust between everyone involved. In the first session you meet the horses, develop some trust, go over safety considerations and fill out paperwork. You will be asked what you are working on, what you need help with or want to work through which helps us know how to structure sessions. There are not a lot of rules or guidelines, they let the horse do what it naturally wants to do. You can push them away or you can get the facilitators help.
We want to also add that you are eligible for funded sessions if you are involved with CAS, Victim Services, Hope’s Eating Disorder program, or have a status card. Please contact us if you have any questions If you are not in the London area there are other farms who offer Equine Assisted Therapy.
- Elgin Equine Assisted Therapy in St. Thomas, ON
- PRANCE Port Elgin in Bruce County
- Leading Edge Equine Academy in Woodstock, ON
Who are your horses and can you tell us a bit about them?
Clients will not be told the names or gender of the horses so that they can be blank canvases for them. This helps the connection between the two so they can build the therapeutic relationship and the client can form their own ideas of who the horse is, even name them.
For fun, Marnie named the chestnut horse “Psychic” the dark horse “Peanut” and the mini horses “yin and yang”.
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