Certainly equine therapy has been popular for autism, developmental disorders and now PTSD with veterans. However, for clinical therapists, the bulk of cases have to do with relationships. The question then becomes: can equine therapy help improve relationships? The answer is yes, and here are three ways:
- Energy awareness. People are often very unaware of the energy they bring into a relationship and how this energy may affect others. This energy that I am referring to is of course housed nonverbally, but felt and often unintentionally expressed. While people are frequently hesitant to mention to another person just how their energy may be affecting them, horses, on the other hand, simply react to it. By shying away from someone who is very angry, for example, or protecting someone who is very vulnerable, a horse’s response to a person’s energy can illuminate and clarify the energy a person brings into a relationship.
- Exploring expectations. When faced with teaching a horse a skill, a person’s expectations of the horse, but in a more general sense, of others, comes to the forefront in a very visual way. As with energy, people are often quite unaware of the expectations they bring into a relationship and just how these may affect others. Through experiencing the effect of these expectations on a horse, people can draw similarities between how the horse may be reacting and how their partner may be reacting.
- Learning communication style. People communicate in different ways, and as with expectations and energy, knowing just how they communicate, and how it affects others, often escapes people. So when a horse responds in a characteristic way, it can demonstrate for a person just how their approach affects others. This can be something as simple as wanting something to happen, but asking for it in a way that is simply too meek for anyone to hear. Of course in this circumstance, the horse will not respond, just as any other person would not, having not heard the message. In a circumstance such as this, the person can then practice altering their communication style to achieve the desired ends, in a way that is much less emotionally charged than with their partner.
While this is only a summary of a few of the ways in working with horses can help improve relationships, there are a multitude of unique and useful exercises that many therapists have developed to increase trust, improve empathy, and foster increased mutual respect between two people.
Claire Dorotik LMFT