Crazed horses with teeth bared charging at everyone in their path; a misunderstood equine lounging on a sofa pouring out tales of a troubled childhood or relationship problems with an owner are the kinds of mental images the average person has when they first hear of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. “We spend quite a bit of time dispelling these kinds of misconceptions,” says Judy Stanger Houck, a mental health professional, horse specialist, and founder of Medicine Horse Counseling in Spokane. “The truth is a little less imaginative but no less interesting. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is not emotional therapy for horses, it is a new and growing form of treatment where horses are helping address the mental health goals of people.”
Horses communicate primarily with non-verbal cues - the position of their ears, their heads, the arrangement of their feet, the movement of their tongues are all indicators of their mood. Add to this equation the fact that the average horse has no desire to communicate with you or to do what you want. Given the choice, horses would much rather be left alone to eat. In other words, the average horse is not much different than the average human adolescent. When people learn how to communicate with horses, how to gain their cooperation, chances are they will be better at communicating with other humans and have a better understanding of themselves.
“Most horse owners already understand the benefits of mastering the skills involved in developing a bond with their horses. To add these benefits to a specially developed therapy program makes sense,” says Houck.
An international professional organization, EAGALA, was founded in 1999 to create standards of practice for this powerful approach to therapy. EAGALA has grown to over 3,500 members in 40 countries. “The interest and enthusiasm for this field among mental health and horse professionals has been growing because they see it work with their clients,” states co-founder and Executive Director, Lynn Thomas, LCSW. “Through this work with horses, people can find new solutions to their daily challenges.”
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is not therapeutic riding or hippotherapy which are other approaches involving horses helping people. Therapeutic riding teaches riding to the disabled, while hippotherapy is a specific strategy involving a licensed physical therapist, occupational therapist or speech and language therapist to address those treatment needs. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is focused on addressing mental health and personal growth needs and is used to help people in a variety of areas including behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, trauma, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, communication needs, and leadership and team building.
The EAGALA standard of EAP requires a team of a qualified horse professional working with a licensed mental health professional at all times during sessions. Standards are in place to serve on either side of the team, with the horse professional needing at least 6,000 hours of hands-on work with horses and 100 hours of continuing education.
No horseback riding is involved. Instead, effective and deliberate techniques are utilized where the horses are metaphors in specific ground-based experiences.
The EAGALA standard also involves the belief that the clients have the best solutions for themselves. This means there is no instructing or directing solutions, but rather the experiences allow clients to experiment, problem-solve, take risks, employ creativity, and find their own answers. This is why the EAGALA trainings are sometimes referred to as “un-trainings.”
EAGALA has a training and certification program which involves taking two 3-day trainings, Fundamentals of EAGALA Model Practice Part l and Part 2, and submitting a professional development portfolio. The trainings are for equine specialists and mental health professionals and are focused on the EAGALA Model of effectively involving horses for mental health and learning goals.
There will be an EAGALA Part 2 training in Spokane, WA, May 17-19. It is hosted by Medicine Horse Counseling, contact Judy Stanger Houck at 509-939-0195. For more information on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and EAGALA, please contact EAGALA at 877-858-4600, www.eagala.org