Equine Facilitated EMDR

For many years I have worked as Counsellor/Psychotherapist, Dramatherapist and Equine Assisted Psychotherapist in the trauma field (domestic and sexual violence). Following an Advanced training in Trauma Therapy, I then decided to train in EMDR. The transition seemed natural and logical at that time and still is. Last year I finally attended the basic 4 part EMDR training and, since then have worked with EMDR both in my private practice and in an IAPT service.

This period coincided with me losing one of our horses (Blaze had to be returned to her previous owner) and acquiring a new one: Spirit.

When my partner and I met Spirit for the first time, it was clear to us that he was bullied by some other horses in the herd. The other horses kept making him go round and round in a circle for no apparent reason. 

When Spirit first met us he straight away came up to us with his beautiful loving eyes. That moment was love at first sight. The interesting part was that we went there to look at two very young horses, two sisters, as we were looking for young horses that could be a companion to our horse Sultana. Sultana was distraught when she lost Blaze and needed a companion that could withstand her need to be “Alpha Horse”. Instead we found Spirit, or Spirit found us, as I would like to think in this story.

When Spirit first arrived he was visibly very distraught. He kept running up and down looking in the direction of the farm where he came (which is not that far and exactly in the direction of his search).  That was the moment that I decided to start bilateral stimulation with him.  He straight away calmed down, like a human infant being soothed by a parent.

That was the beginning of more EMDR sessions with Spirit to help him through the trauma of having lost his herd, his abusers and what he knew from the past, and start a new life with us.
I am happy to say that he has now fully adjusted and our herd is now complete again.
If he goes too far from Sultana, or vice versa, they would both be upset and look for each other.

My work as an Equine Assisted Psychotherapist is to allow the client/horse relationship to unfold. My role is very clear: I maintain the boundaries and safety of this experience, help the human to communicate with the horse (my experience says that horses don’t need help in understanding humans - they know us very well, even before we do) by translating the horse behaviour  to the human and we will then help the client by setting scenarios where the horse and human could  enter, in order to find a way forward or further understand or for further self-insight.

Horses reflect back all that is within our conscious and unconscious.  The difficulty for the humans is to actually listen to what they are saying to us.

In Dramatherapy the work is also around allowing the client to create metaphorical journeys of self-discovery. Metaphorical so that the client and I can bypass the fears of actually telling me what the trauma is.

Story making and storytelling are important aspects of our human history, both primordial and current: Shakespeare is still very important to us and so is Date Alighieri with The Divine Comedy.  So is the TV and film we watch.  In Trauma Therapy working with metaphors is paramount, hence Art Therapies being very successful within this field.

This brought me to look at ways to included EMDR in my work. I knew that it was possible with animals, but I was wondering how I could do it with humans too. So I placed an ad for volunteers among my colleagues in the IAPT service and two therapists came forward.  Both have given written consent for me to write this article.

The aim of the work was focusing on anxieties. We worked on a 6 weeks contract plus an initial meeting for history taking and looking at what we might want to work on. For the scoring I used PHQ-9 and GAD 7.

Besides the initial meeting, all 6 sessions were carried out in the field with the horses. This meant having to take into consideration the weather (we had a lot of snow during that period) and cancel if necessary.   Both volunteers were specifically advised that full feedback will be required at the end, as this was a research/trial opportunity for my learning.

During all sessions I experimented with ways of structuring the sessions: start the session with or without the horses? Processing with or without the horses? What role will the horses have during the session? Will the horses also benefit from the processing? Considering that we will be standing up, that I will need to keep the client safe and total awareness of the horses, what stimulation would I need to use or work best?

At the end, thanks to my willing and flexible volunteers, I was able to experiment all that I could think of (I am sure I will find more ways as I will continue) and find a flexible structure that combines these two types of therapies both of which have specific protocols. Ultimately the clients’ anxieties did improve:

Client A GAD7 scoring: first session scored 12. Last session scored 4

Client B GAD7 scoring: first session scored 7. Last session scored 2

The key elements of the horses’ presence during the EMDR protocol were very profound to the volunteers. Although both volunteers initially thought that EMDR would be the successful therapeutic tool, at the end they both found that the Horses played a bigger role than EMDR.

The key elements, or roles, that the horses brought to this therapeutic experience were:

Both horses became a positive resource that could be installed and recalled in time of need either during or in between the sessions

  • Processing a target near a horse left one of the clients feeling less alone. “I am not on my own here while I am thinking of this”
  • When unsure what target to work with, ask the client to talk to me while stroking the horse. The horse will generously tell you where the issue is: e.g. walking away when the client was talking was about loss (fear of being abandoned or rejected)
  • In one session, while processing a Positive Cognition, the horse behaviour clarified what words and sensations could not for the client. Sultana lifted one of her back legs (which she never did before and stood there with it completely still.) As if she was saying to the client “you can stand on your own feet… you will be alright”. Which was exactly what the client was thinking about in that moment, but had not voiced yet.
  • Horses are great Interweaves.  Asking to a client “What would Sultana or Spirit say to you in this moment, or do in that situation” often helped client to become unstuck and find a way forward while processing a target
  • For the stimulation , although I started by  using the tactile equipment  in the therapy room and the Butterfly hug or me tapping on the client’s back  with the horse,  in the last few sessions I stopped using the tactile equipment.  One of the clients remarked on this as she did like the equipment.  From this feedback I am considering going back to mixing the styles as I personally find the equipment very helpful in enlisting emotions while soothing at the same time.
  • The horses did respond to the actual stimulation. They calmed down while tapping slowly during resource installation and got a bit more charged during the processing. 

At this stage, what I am not sure is if the horses do benefit from the stimulation.

The dilemma is which trauma or target is the horse processing? The client’s target (by becoming a companion of their journey) or their own trauma (as they might have similar traumas to the client)

This is a beginning journey for me so I am sure I will learn more as I am travelling this path. At the moment I am also focusing my work on treating horses, or animals, with EMDR. With them the processing style and protocol is very different and yet much faster. Perhaps something new for me to write about in the future.

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Written by Maya Patricia Gagni

I have practised as a Counsellor and Psychotherapist for around 20 years.
I am also a qualified Dramatherapist, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapist, EMDR Practitioner, Supervisor and Trauma Therapist.
I have worked within a number of settings and organisations and my private practice is a women only service.… Read more

Written by Maya Patricia Gagni

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