Experience of the Perceived Benefits of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP)
Gentle giants heal the wounded self: the power of the horse to reflect emotion
This paper explores the comparatively new field of experiential psychology known as Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP). Jung (2002) suggests that horses embody one of humanity’s deepest mythological archetypes. The merging of divine with mortal human and animal figures appears to be an effort to capitalize on the strength of Chiron, the Greek centaur half man half horse, and may represent the very first conscious link between human, horse and healing.
Horses are also believed to offer themselves as connectors to nature. Jung believed that modern man’s disconnection from the natural world is “largely responsible for the pathological condition of contemporary culture” (Sabini, 2002). Furthermore, he argues that in primitive society where people may have been more intimately connected to their environment, “there was less evidence of conflict between consciousness, emotions and instinct” (ibid).
It can be argued that a client’s relationship with a horse in EFP is rich with possibilities for creating metaphors for other relationships in their lives. Horses cannot dissemble; they respond directly and spontaneously so they act as mirrors and help people acknowledge the impact of their behaviour by observing the responses evoked in the horse. Interacting alongside a horse can be an illuminating experience because “from animals we cannot disguise our feelings. They respond to what is beneath the surface, our internal frame of reference”(Johnson, 2001 cited in Baugh, 2004). It has also been stated that “the ability of the horse to offer clear, immediate and uncomplicated feedback is one of the most powerful characteristics of equine assisted therapy” (Karol, 1999 cited in Baugh 2004).
Research studies have indicated excellent outcomes of EFP for many different client groups. (Bowers 2001; Bates, 2002; Christian 2005). Working with equines gives people experiencing challenge within their lives, the opportunity to engage in the natural world and learn a new skill with a beautiful and powerful animal whilst learning about themselves and the way they interact with the world.
Accounts of how EFP works and with whom can be found in a number of studies. Rothe et al (2005) concluded that children using EFP developed a relationship by caring for the horse, deriving socialization, companionship and affection, thus promoting well-being and improvement in their lives. Williams (2004) suggested that caring for a horse translates into caring for oneself. Bates (2002) wrote that ”self esteem may be increased through a new found ability to positively influence another being, although needs for loyalty, trust and respect can be met through equine facilitated psychotherapy”. Katcher and Wilson (1998) and Mallon (1992) suggest that when a horse is led by a child, the horse subordinates power to the child and the therapist can observe verbal and non-verbal communication. Work which is entirely dependent on non-verbal cues can also be incorporated into human relationships (Miller, 1984). A horse can provide some opportunities for giving and receiving affection which a child needs for adequate growth and personality development (Folse, 1994).
Central to grounded theory findings is the ‘core category’ linking all of the emergent categories into one central theme (Strauss and Corbin 1990; Charmaz, 2006).
Resonance is a participative process in which both equine and client are actively involved. An equine acts as a reflector and possibly amplifier of the client’s energy and feelings whilst the therapist actively engages the client in investigating what might be happening for them at any given time in order to translate their felt sense into verbalised understanding. Kohanov (2001) explained how this might come about when she said: “to these animals, the ability to intuit fear in a distant herd member and act on this feeling without hesitation is a lifesaving skill. Their innate aptitude for resonating with another being’s trust, joy, or confidence is a life enhancing skill.” The process of resonating is seen in an equine’s movements, and although it has its origins as a life saving sensitivity, it presents itself in all the non-verbal communications within the herd. Equine body language can be observed when clients enter the field in the way the horses’ ears move with the slightest sounds, the way their bodies turn to enable them to tune into the energy surrounding them within their environment.
Since energy exchange is an important part of understanding human-equine relationships, it is helpful to consider writers such as Schore (1994) who have explored the relationship between attachment styles, the therapeutic relationship and energy exchanges. Schore asserts that “the communication between clients and their therapists is derived from somato-sensory cues that the therapist, like a ‘good enough mother’, interprets and then provides the correct intervention required by the client at that time”. In line with psychoanalytic theory, Schore argues that the healing that transpires between client and therapist is primarily unconscious and he focuses on the non-verbal experiences of therapist and client and how the relationship is used to regulate affect (eg Schore, 2000).
Empathic resonating is a process that is reliant on the therapist being able to read subtle bodily reactions from their clients. Equines by their nature are very much in tune with this ability, due in part to their being prey animals. Their success at being able to read a client’s energy fits with Schore’s (2003) concept of the non-verbal aspects of therapy. The limbic system within humans fully equips us to be in touch with our emotions, and equines within the therapeutic frame are able to reflect our emotions back to us. The theory of resonating adds value to the literature available on the success of equine therapy and goes some way to explaining how and why it works.
The Therapeutic Relationship
The essence of any therapy lies in the therapist’s ability to establish a therapeutic relationship with the client (Welch & Gonzalez, 1999, cited in Baugh, 2004). At the heart of every therapeutic relationship remains an ‘intensely human, personal and essentially unique encounter’ (Rogers, 1957). In EFP both the therapist and the equine(s) contribute to this encounter which can lead to a deeper understanding of the client’s inner world. Experience has shown that equines can add an alternative vector to the therapeutic dynamic, especially where difficulties arise; offering some ‘time out’, leaving the client with the horses, almost inevitably leads to conflict resolution in the therapeutic relationship. In other therapies impasses may take weeks or months to be acknowledged by the client but, with an equine’s intuitive non-verbal reflective process, resolution can be achieved much faster than in the consulting room. EFP tends to be effective for those clients who are stuck or in need of a boost to their current therapy but can also help at every stage of healing. Equines work well in therapy as they have the ability to enable humans to be back in touch with those parts of ourselves that have been ‘disabled’ – to put humans back in touch with their instinctive selves.
I have been asked many times what drew me to work with equines and why I chose to explore this increasingly exciting field. Ever since I was a child I have always had a love of animals. Growing up I passed many an hour at my local stables spending time with these magnificent creatures; I would look long into their soulful eyes and literally lose myself.
I work primarily with talking cures as EFP can be an expensive therapy but the time I have spent watching both myself and clients in equine therapy never fails to inspire me. Other therapists also speak of the magic of EFP and how the horses will literally do the work for them.
I recall my first experience of equine therapy. It was a beautiful day and I have to say I was sceptical about the process not knowing what to expect. I was met by a herd of animals that remained curious and inquisitive as to why I was there. One of the herd “presented” herself to me and allowed me to cuddle and stroke her, whilst I remained in awe of this gentle giant. I could literally feel my wounded self heal. As with many clients experiencing EFP, the equines literally pushed the therapist out the way and stood between us as if to say “I’m the boss now, let me do my work” – and they did. I have yet to meet an equine therapist for whom EFP has failed to work. It is a truly magical and moving process where you are engaged with a gentle giant who will see through you and gently remind you of what it is to be human.
Dr Julie Scheiner works in a variety of settings. At present she is working for the NHS within a learning disability service as well as a drug and alcohol service. She also consults to a private hospital where, as part of a therapeutic community, she practices EMDR for clients recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. Julie teaches on a doctorate program for counselling psychology and has her own private practice in the heart of north London.
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Image: The Magic Of Horses by Carol Von Canon