What does an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Session Even LOOK Like?

In the last few years, I have fallen in love with a form of therapy called Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, or EAP for short.  It's a bit of a fringe therapy, but it is growing exponentially as we learn more and more about its benefits.  However, since it is fairly "fringe", many people haven't a clue what it actually means to do this work, or to be a client of EAP.  So, here is my attempt at explaining it.  Keep in mind, there are many ways to do this work - this is my experience.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is, simply put, a psychotherapy session that is...assisted...by equines.  A therapist, a horse professional (sometimes they are one and the same), and one or more horses come together to support a client in therapeutic growth - mentally and emotionally.  This work can have physiological benefits, but that is only the goal as it relates to mental/emotional health (like a release in muscle tension due to decrease in anxiety).  So goals are created much as they would be in typical office therapy - for example, a goal could be "decrease symptoms of anxiety", or "increase ability to recognize and manage emotions as they arise".

EAP is often confused with Hippotherapy or Therapeutic Riding - which is riding to improve physiological and mental development in those with injuries or mental/physical disabilities - clients with brain injuries, birth defects, autism spectrum, etc can benefit greatly from Hippotherapy.  EAP is also often confused with EAL (replace Psychotherapy with Learning) - this is a practice done by horse professionals who are NOT licensed therapists, and whose focus is often on personal growth or coaching.  Similar, but not the same.  EAL can be powerful work - but if you are looking for psychotherapy, you need a licensed therapist - and EAP.

Let's say you are seeking a therapist - you want to work on something emotional, mental, or behavioral (i.e. stress, anxiety, depression, relationship issues, family issues, parenting, trauma, etc) - why might you choose EAP?  My favorite reason...because it is experiential.  That means that instead of going into an office and talking about your problems, you come to the ranch and experience your problems.  Now that may sound unappealing, so let me elaborate.  When we see a talk therapist in an office (and I'm not dogging this work, it can be very powerful) - we often arrive, talk about ourselves and our life, and then leave with some ideas about what we might do or think about differently in the week between our sessions. In an EAP session, you come to session and begin to engage in a relationship with a horse or horses - you interact, try to accomplish tasks, try to connect.  In doing so, the typical things that often cause you problems in life happen IN session.  Do you over accommodate? Then you will over accommodate that horse.  Do you try to control others? Then you will try to control that horse.  Do you get frustrated and quit easily? Then you will get frustrated and quit with that horse.  Do you focus so much on a task that you forget to connect with others?  Then that's what will happen with that horse.  See a pattern here?  So rather than spending hours and hours, weeks and weeks in an office trying to decode all your thoughts/feelings/behaviors - a therapist in an EAP session will actually have a chance to see your behaviors in action, generally right away.  Many times, believe it or not, I am able to observe the very heart of a client's work within the first couple of sessions. Not due to any magic or genius on my part - but because who we are with the horses is who we are everywhere.  THEN, the therapist, the client, and the horse all come together to make the changes necessary also IN the session.  A client doesn't have to go home to try things out and report back, the client can try things out with their horse and therapist there to support them and guide them.  The client gets real-time feedback and learns while anxious, or afraid, or angry - and is supported in changing that IN THE MOMENT.  It is powerful, transformational, and encourages changes in the brain for a lasting effect.

So what might this look like in a play-by-play?  When I have a new client, we begin with a bit of history - why are you here, what's been happening in your life, where do you come from, where do you want to go; that sort of thing.  This can happen in my office or as we walk around meeting horses.  Some clients prefer the movement and comforting interaction of horses while they talk about themselves.  Then, we move into choosing a horse to work with.  Here the experiential work begins.  Some clients choose the horse that chooses them.  Others choose the one that reminds them of something or someone.  Others choose the one they feel connected to.  Trusting yourself, listening to your preferences, and making a decision can bring up feelings and thoughts right away.  For some, lots of work is done in the choosing of a horse - for others, it is a simple activity that lasts only the first session.  Once the client has found their partner any number of things can happen each session; we simply encourage them to build a relationship.  This involves spending time together, asking the horse to move from one place to another, perhaps grooming, navigating obstacles together, noticing how a horse communicates to us, and other things that we call 'groundwork' - like learning how to ask a horse to stop, turn, go, come to you, follow you, stand still, etc. while standing on the ground. We do as much of this as possible without any ropes/halters or other control devices so that the horses can be their authentic selves.  Sometimes sessions include riding, but only when appropriate for the therapy.  What does all of this matter?  Well, as a client navigates all of these tasks they inevitably make requests, have to set boundaries, need to ask for space, deal with closeness and touch, manage frustration and fear, practice assertiveness, build trust, manage anxiety and internal energy...the list goes on.  What I have found is that whatever comes up for my clients out in their "real lives" happens in our sessions - because what they are doing is building a real relationship with a horse.  It may sound unusual to anyone with limited animal experience - but it is truly possible to have a real, mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationship with a horse - I see it all the time.  And it is in this relationship, along with the relationship a client builds with their therapist, in which healing and growth occur. 

So, some clients may spend weeks standing in a pasture trying to make a decision about which horse to approach - this happens when decision-making and trusting the self is the work.  Some clients will spend their time trying to accomplish tasks, but forgetting to connect with themselves and the horse emotionally, leading to struggle in the task - this happens when connection to self and others is the work.  Some clients will choose a horse that steps on their feet and pushes them with their nose - the work is then about boundary setting and self-worth.  Every relationship is different, every session looks a little different.  But ultimately, client, therapist, and horse come together to create an experience....then process that experience...and then try to have a new, better experience.  All in an environment where authenticity, non-judgement, and vulnerability are sought and highly valued.

The goal in all of this is that the client learns a new way of being in the world - which is really what therapy is all about.



***Be on the lookout for a post discussing the mounted work of EAP - improving brain function, self-regulation, and relationship all at the same time!

Disclaimer: SOME therapists do an excellent job of being experiential in an office.  I just prefer and find it more natural out with the horses.  :)