Following a clinical meeting last year on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, we arranged a day visit to a farm near Gloucester to have a CPD day and learn more about this unusual therapeutic approach.
The group comprised of eight art therapists, a doctor/therapist and the facilitators, equine therapists Mike Delaney and Ella Bloomfield. From the outset I was curious, though not gullible, and happy to have a day out of London and spend it with my colleagues in a relaxed way. I had not expected that each one of us would be moved by the simplicity and depth of the experience.
We were taken through various stages: induction and introduction, safety and support, individual and pair work, debriefing and discussion. A series of exercises and challenges developed throughout the day as our confidence grew. Initial fears about horses, animals, change, not ‘being in one’s head’, separation, self-assurance and scepticism slowly dissipated as we learnt that horses are not predators. As Mike explained: “horses are herd animals, social by nature, and therefore have a heightened sense of awareness of the rest of the herd members. Horses are preyed upon in nature and so have a keen ability to sense changes in their herd members, and they do the same in their interactions with humans. They sense changes in emotion, arousal levels, behaviour, focus and intention and immediately reflect that information back to us.”
They are very approachable and are highly attuned to congruence and incongruence in human beings. Horses have an acute sensitivity to feelings in others (anxiety, anger, pain etc.) and can sense if the inner world of a person is different to the outer world (defended, inauthentic, pretending, distracted etc.). Thus when working with horses we were reminded to be present, focused, mindful, not ‘in our heads’, and to be congruent and genuine with our feelings. It was explained that the limbic system in horses picks up what may be going on in the limbic system in humans (the fight-flight response, linked to emotion and behaviour) and they respond authentically to the subtle cues they pick up.
We were invited to enter the field of horses and see what happens. It was very interesting to observe and experience the level of interest or disinterest from the horses and how for some it can feel rejecting, when perhaps the disinterest only suggested the lack of ‘grounding’ in the person. I was curious about how much of this process might be anthropormorphising or projecting, but soon noticed this was about something that resonated at a deeper level. Horses don’t ‘judge’, they ‘respond to’ – something therapists are trained to do. Of course horses are not therapists, but they serve as the third in a triadic therapeutic relationship. Mike often made comments about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) that could have come directly from an art therapy textbook. He spoke about this triad of horse, therapist and client (cf. image-therapist-client); to be without judgement, and how the horse’s response is to be interpreted by the client, not the therapist. Mike and Ella carefully offered therapeutic observations and interventions throughout the day, stimulated by whatever happened between horse and participant.
There was something powerful in the physicality of the work in that movement, walking next to, in front of, gesture, eye gaze, all had meaning in the relationship. What relationship? With Pegasus or Black Beauty? No, with oneself. Each horse had its own animal history and each person was drawn to different horses that unknowingly resonated with their own histories. Extraordinary how some of the group were compelled to approach the horse who had experienced loss – Mike explained that many people who are grieving are attracted to that horse, while others were attracted to the horse who had been treated badly and was full of sadness. A horse who had an eating disorder (eating too much grass which made her unwell) also finds connection with clients who have addiction problems or eating disorders. There were about eight horses in all including the alpha mare, the young ones and each had a different ‘character’.
Mike told us case histories that initially sounded like fairy tales yet, after the experience of the day, it was clear that this was not delusional or magic but something very real. He told of the woman who was approached by four young horses at once, all nuzzling into her and who started laughing and crying as she spoke of her own four children who had been taken into care. Or the story of the group of teenagers who had the horses running in frenetic circles around them after walking in to the field. The horses, sensing disharmony and chaos within the group, calmed down only after the boys had discussed and put to rest an earlier argument. He told of another peculiar incident when all the horses started urinating at once and on asking if someone in the group had a health issue to do with the bladder, someone said they had a urinary tract infection brought on by ketamine abuse. Thus the horses also seem to have somatic responses to the people they are interacting with and this is very helpful biofeedback.
The horses, like images made in art therapy, act as mirrors and reflect something useful or interesting that can be therapeutically articulated, or not, by EAP. Just as in art therapy, not everything needs to be reiterated with words; in EAP, the sheer grace and humility of the horses has a strong healing effect.
EAP has been recognized by BACP and other medical organisations. There are a few books to read and websites to peruse. Regarding client-work, we won’t be bringing the horses to London to aid us with art therapy, though are very open to making referrals to this unusual approach. As a professional training day, this was an eye-opener into another way of working therapeutically with clients and a salutary reminder of the importance of being in one’s body during the process.
If any therapist is interested in signing up to another CPD day in EAP, we shall plan a trip next Summer so do let us know. Otherwise, we highly recommend making contact with Mike or Ella at LEAP.
Written by Hephzibah Kaplan
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy: One of the participants reflects on her experience of the day
When I first heard about ‘Equine Therapy’ I fear my attitude may have been somewhat dismissive, a reaction I sometimes notice, when I am too quick to judge something that, in fact, I know nothing about and have never experienced first-hand. This is ironical, considering that I too practice a peripheral profession, Art Therapy, that other people may be unfamiliar with, and I frequently need to explain what Art Therapy is, and the rationale behind it. In all honesty, I attended the evening-presentation, at the London Art Therapy Centre, because I was curious and it was on the clinical meeting agenda, but not because of any personal-draw to the modality. However, I was immediately impressed by the work Mike Delaney presented, and began to consider how people who have experienced abuse from humans and suffered trauma may find it easier to relate to a horse than a human.
During the full-day workshop, the unexpected did occur for me. I felt a release of some thoughts I had been contemplating in my everyday life. Somehow, in a field full of horses, I had a cathartic and transformative experience. With some emotion, there followed a quick succession of revelations about my life, that seemed to flow out like a waterfall, which I was able to verbalise to the supportive (human) therapist who witnessed and responded kindly to this. As well as the horses and the gentle facilitation of Mike and Ella, I think it may have been the support of processing inner work – whilst viewing the horizon in the distance; that I had just that bit more space to let it all in, including the thoughts and feelings that spontaneously occurred, and to experience it, and I walked away with greater clarity on some integral parts of my life.
I am reminded of the importance to be open to experiencing something directly, especially that which may seem hard to quantify and unfamiliar, and to be open to consider the benefits diverse therapeutic modalities. Thank you Mike and Ella, the horses and all the other participants who shared this day.