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Clinical Meeting: The horse-therapist

In this month’s meeting we invited Mike Delaney, an addiction specialist, to talk to us about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. This is an emerging field of experiential therapy in which humans interact with horses in their natural environment as a tool for emotional growth and learning. In a sense, Mike explained, the horses are the therapists – using their natural ability to sense and reflect back clients’ physical and emotional states.

I must admit I felt slightly sceptical at first: after all, I thought, we train for so long to work as verbal or creative psychotherapists, fine-tuning our listening and expressive skills, working on our counter-transference, identifying projections and attending seminars and supervision. How can an encounter with a horse be nearly as effective? Especially a horse without a Master’s degree?

But the talk challenged our thinking about this method of treatment. Mike gave the theme of “connections” for the art-making component of the session and went on to explain that Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is neither about riding nor horsemanship; rather, its aim is to facilitate a connection between “split off” parts of the self. The relationship with the horse is one where the client does not feel judged and there is no need for words, yet the client has to be authentic in order to gain the horse’s trust.

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Image by Hephzibah Kaplan

In the group we discussed the way horses can often be frightening. One member said she used to experience horses as jittery and agitated, until she realised that she was the one who felt jittery and agitated near the horses – who simply reflected it back to her. This realisation enabled her to let go of her fear. Mike explained that we often give out physical signals (through scent or body language) about internal mental states which we might not be aware of – yet the horse will respond to these signals and mirror them back to us. He also gave several touching and inspiring examples of clients who had gone through trauma and dissociation and were able to go back into “being” in their bodies as a result of the work.

As it turned out, the horses do have a Master’s degree of sorts; many have gone through difficult experiences including natural disasters, abuse and neglect. Mike explained that the horses often approach clients who had gone through similar traumas in their own lives. He gave several examples demonstrating the ability of the horses to challenge clients to set boundaries, work with each other or take risks. We discussed the way that being with the horses enables clients to “test out” new ways of thinking and behaving, often in a non-verbal way, which they process by reflecting on the experience with the therapist afterwards. The art therapists in the meeting commented on the similarities between EAP and art therapy: both by having an experiential component to the work and by having an object which turns the dyadic therapeutic relationship into a triad (in art therapy we have the artwork; in EAP it’s the horse).

Mike explained that EAP is particularly effective as a brief intervention and it is suitable for a wide range of clients, from treatment-resistant adults or adolescents with antisocial behaviour to team building events. For many of us who arrived at the meeting not knowing what to expect, the idea of leaving London to spend a day with Mike’s horses seemed truly therapeutic.

A short video from the BBC documentary ‘Am I Normal?’ showing one of Mike’s clients talking about the way EAP changed her life:

Mike Delaney’s website

Posted by Nili Sigal, art therapist &
clinical meetings coordinator

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