Therapy with horses

Equine assisted psychotherapy is a powerful way for us to connect to ourselves, the natural environment and our inner knowing. It provides opportunities for new insights into relationship patterns; inner thoughts and beliefs that may hold us back from making changes in our lives.

These difficulties can be mirrored by the horses and how they respond to us in the sessions. This approach offers a unique way to reconnect to ourselves through a relationship with animals and some shared experiences. 

Which problems can be helped using therapy with horses? 

Therapy with horses can help adults and children with a range of mental health problems including social anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism, addiction, trauma and much more.

Sometimes the problem is harder to define, it may be a change of mood; an increase in stress and/or anxiety or a sense that life has lost some of its pleasure – any of these may be motivating you to seek therapy.  

The first step is admitting to yourself that you need help, the next step is finding a therapist. There are so many to choose from online and the idea of talking to a stranger in a room can bring on anxiety for some. Therapy with horses is a useful alternative to talking therapies. Horses provide non-verbal opportunities to gain self-awareness and reconnect to your inner knowing but without the need to talk through difficult past experiences. 

How does it work?

Horses live in herds and need other horses for their physical and emotional well-being. Like humans, they are essentially social mammals. The size of our social group will range depending on our personality and experience. In a session the interaction with horses can parallel our lives outside; how we approach relationships, communicate, judge ourselves and therefore offer opportunities to notice what is happening in our brains and bodies as we engage in a new experience. 

Horses are very connected to their instincts and environments. They can teach us how to reconnect to ourselves. As mammals that used to be ‘someone’s dinner’, they are highly attuned to their senses which alerts them to potential dangers.  

We have this ability too. As children we were born connected to our bodies, our inner sensations and emotions. Life around us meant that we had to adapt to fit in to our families, school and wider society - sometimes taking us into the role of helper, carer, leader or follower. Therapy with horses can give us the opportunity to step back, find a different perspective - and an ‘ah’ moment. Beth (pseudonym) found this out when she booked her therapy sessions with us at ChangeWays

Beth came to see us because she couldn’t trust in relationships, she wouldn’t commit, ending relationships when they became serious. This dynamic was mirrored by the horse in the session. The horse moved towards Beth putting his nose on her arm. Beth felt instant panic and moved away. This experience of moving towards and moving away continued to play out in Beth’s therapy. 

In one of our moments of talking together, Olivia highlighted this pattern. Olivia’s role in the team is to bring the person’s attention to the horse's behaviour. This was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for Beth as something shifted inside her.  

In a further session the horse approached again, standing behind Beth with his head resting on her back, she did not step away. Tears started to flow as she connected to her sadness, an emotion she had decided never to feel again when her Dad left when she was 13. As the tears flowed, the horse stayed with her. We stepped back, we could feel the intensity of this moment. There was no need for words or to unpack this experience. 

As a team we think about this as a ‘peak’ moment in the session. Beth continued to think about her experience in the days after therapy. She came to see us for a further four sessions. She went away from therapy with insight, a greater trust in herself and most importantly an inner change that meant she was ready to experiment with closeness in other relationships in her life. 

Every session is different, there can be these ‘peak’ moments and sometimes it can feel like nothing is happening or that the horses are not engaging. These moments of frustration or feeling stuck can parallel something from our outside lives.

What happens in a session? 

When you arrive for your session we will meet you outside the farmhouse. We will introduce ourselves and then head out towards the pasture. Our job as a team is to facilitate your experience through the horses. We may start with an observation, asking you to notice what you see out there in the space. This is to familiarise you with your surroundings.

When you are ready, we will invite you to meet the horses. Olivia and I step back. Our focus is on the horses, we use an observation framework which includes noticing shifts, patterns and other aspects of the horses’ behaviour in the space. 

We do not know what will happen in the session. We facilitate a space for you to explore the issue you are bringing to therapy, if you know it. The story and meaning that emerges from this is yours. The sessions can connect you to both your inner and outer world. We offer a safe space for you to find your own solutions. Sometimes the session can powerfully connect you to feelings and awarenesses that were hidden. Processing can happen in the session and between sessions, through dreams, insights, emotions or gut feelings. 

Therapy with horses is an effective alternative to talking therapies. There is a growing evidence base that supports this approach. If you're keen to learn more, don't hesitate to get in touch.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Dumfries, Scotland, DG1

Written by Coral Harrison, PTSTA, CTA, Psychotherapist

Dumfries, Scotland, DG1

Coral is a UKCP registered Child and Adult Psychotherapist. She is Advanced Certified with EAGALA and has been offering therapy with horses since 2005. This is a team approach involving a psychotherapist, an equine specialist and horses. Coral works with Olivia at Denton Hall Farmhouse, Low Row, Cumbria.

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