Equine therapy is many things. Powerful. Innovative. Spiritual. However, there are also many things that equine therapy is not. Unfortunately, like any alternative treatment modality, work with horses has been subject to its share of misinterpretations. As these incorrect beliefs have surfaced, those who work in the field have had to answer many questions, in service of clarifying what equine therapy really is.
So, let’s talk about a few of the most prominent equine therapy myths.
While the popularity of equine therapy has been increasing dramatically, in has expanded into many different settings. Equine therapy can now be found as part of veterans rehabilitation programs, outpatient therapy offered to children with developmental disorders as part of a hospital’s treatment model, and even surprisingly, part of the required curriculum for Stanford Medical students.
As this expansive development has occurred, many in the psychotherapeutic field have also wondered where the research to support this new treatment approach is being published. Some journals have produced articles supporting equine therapy, much research has been funded by the Horse and Human Research foundation, and some researchers have chosen to conduct and publish their own research independently.
A study recently conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association found that 74 percent of dog owners, 60 percent of cat owners, and 45 percent of bird owners considered their pet as a child or family member. Sixty two percent of cat and dog owners said their pet helped them relax and relieved stress. Further, 59 percent of dog owners and 37 percent of cat owners thought their pets were not only good for their health but would help them live longer.
However, when the person is placed in a position of service, such as in a guardianship position, it was demonstrated that those who guard over a dog are more likely to survive after a heart attack. One hundred percent of the dog guardians polled said that they turn to their animal companions for emotional support, sometimes instead of friends. Further, 100 percent talk to their pets, and 97 percent of animal guardians think their pets understand what they are saying.
The other day, a client in my office brought up an interesting issue. From the time she was young, she recalls being a “dog person”, and always finding great joy and comfort in their presence. However, recently, she has noticed that the mere sight of dog hair in her house can send her into a fit.
After assessing, and ruling out any OCD diagnosis, and looking back into her history to determine exactly when this frustration started, what became clear is that around the time her first child was born (she has two — ages 5 and 7), she began to resent the dog hair in the house.
So I asked her about how the process of maternal bonding had gone. Pausing, she related that actually she had struggled mightily with the bonding process, and at times had to force herself to hug, comfort, and console her young boy. Given that we had already discussed her fractured relationship with her mother who could be overbearing, critical, and downright nasty, we concluded that the development of oxytocin (which typically happens during the mother-child bonding phase) had also suffered.
While there are numerous complaints clients can present with and probably an even greater abundance of ways to treat these ailments, the majority of practitioners would most likely agree that the majority of them stem from the relationships that people find themselves in. Or perhaps, these present relationships are reflections of the more formative earlier ones. In either case, there is no shortage of methods to help people better understand themselves and their relationships.
One of these methods of fostering self-awareness is equine therapy. And like many other forms of treatment, working with horses has taken many forms. While some organizations focus solely on creating and implementing exercises for clients to perform with horses, others attempt to generalize the client’s behavior with the horse to other, more fractured areas of their life. The thought in both cases in that if the client can learn how to alter his/her behavior across a multitude of situations, the outcomes will be different, and hopefully, more satisfying.
While those in the world of mindfulness may be well aware that empathy toward others is a recipe for a feeling of well-being within oneself, for many people, just how to increase a sense of empathy can be a challenging subject. This of course is complicated when many people struggle with feeling empathetic toward others. To be sure, when empathy isn’t expressed, it isn’t gained either. So if this is the case, how does one go about increasing empathy? And further, is it possible that animals, namely horses, can help us to feel more empathetic toward one another?
To answer this question, let’s first take a look at how empathy is defined, and what factors in human relationships can facilitate it.
When kids have secure attachment relationships (so that they know they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support), they are more likely to show sympathy and offer help to other kids in distress (Waters et al 1979; Kestenbaum et al 1989).
Equine therapy studies are hard to find. And perhaps even more challenging to find are studies that utilize sound research protocol. Of course this leaves many well intentioned mental health practitioners to question the validity of equine therapy. On the other hand, there are many potential recipients of equine therapy who wish that there insurance company would cover equine work so that they may partake in it.
So, that being said, let’s take a look at a few good equine therapy studies:
Looking at the outcomes of 31 participants in an equine-assisted experiential therapy program, this article describes the intervention and the psychological measures that were completed prior to treatment, immediately following treatment and 6 months after treatment. After discussing the results of the study, the article also delves into the clinical implications and limitations of the study, and makes suggestions for further research.
Recently, a member of the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA), www.narha.org, posed an important question. New to the field of equine therapy, and only just beginning to amass an understanding of the practice, this horse enthusiast was wondering which of the many certifications now available in the horse healing world would be best.
The question is worth pondering for sure as with the recent growth of equine therapy, new certifications have emerged. Probably the most popular is the Equine Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), www.eagala.org. With a very behavioral approach, and several practiced exercises to be performed with the horse, EAGALA gives the equine practitioner a clear method, goal, and theory. While the relationship with the horse is always occurring within the EAGALA sessions, it is secondary to the attempt and completion of the exercise with the horse. What is interpreted is just how the client approaches the exercise, the outcome of this approach, and how to alter it to influence a different outcome. Certainly some professionals have appreciated EAGALA’s methods, yet others have criticized the apparent disregard for the horse. This criticism has extended beyond the importance of the development of a relationship with the horse for both the client and the horse, but also to the overall welfare of the horse as some of the exercises challenge the horse’s inherent nature.
Intra-Family violence can be one of the most challenging issues to treat in therapy. Much of the complexity results not only from the family’s likely mistrust of the system and the professionals that are a part of it — particularly in cases where Child Protective Services may have already intervened — but also, the prevalence of co-occurring disorders, such as addictions.
Often, these families will minimize the extent of the violence, possibly target one family member as the “problem” or offer the therapist platitudes — compliance in the service of resistance — that obfuscate the reality of the situation. While the therapist may suspect the violence is much more severe than is presented and gently confront the family, they may become defensive, increase resistance, or leave the therapy all-together. This dynamic combined with the family’s general mistrust of therapeutic settings places the therapist in a very difficult bind.
Horses have been domesticated for many years, and from the very beginning, it was us teaching them. We attached our ropes, harnesses, saddles, and ideas unto them. We taught them what to be, think, and do.
And amazingly, they went along. Horses obliged us. When we asked them to carry us just where we wanted to go — and sometimes in the most dangerous circumstances — they did. After all, horses were the very first war vehicle.
And when we asked them to carry us in the way we wanted to go, again, they did. We hitched their heads up high, and weighted their feet, so that the picture would be pleasurable to us. And still, they did.
Regardless of how absurd and even threatening our ideas may have seemed to a horse, still they obliged our desires, putting their emotions, and even very primal need for protection aside. Simply because we asked.