Equine Therapy: The Healing Connection between Horses and Humans
Jul 29, 2015 05:19PM
● By Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer
Established in 1999, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) is a non-profit organization that seeks to rehabilitate those undergoing mental, emotional and developmental health concerns through structured interaction with horses. This alternative therapeutic technique has been utilized to address multiple issues such as relational barriers, trauma repercussions and substance abuse.
Recently, I was given an opportunity to experience what the EAGALA program entails for myself. Louise Sutherland-Hoyt, M.Ed., CAGS, a Bradenton-based licensed Mental Health Counselor, invited my twin sister and me to participate in an equine therapy session, geared toward strengthening our communication and listening skills.
Together, we spent this educational afternoon confronting the challenges that siblings often face understanding one another’s viewpoints and emotional needs, with the horses acting as “guide maps” of our inner selves. The premise behind equine therapy is that these animals –honest and intuitive by nature – directly reflect human body language, thus prompting participants to adjust their attitudes or actions until the horses respond positively.
Sutherland-Hoyt who has joined forces with Janet Margerison, a local EAGALA-certified equine specialist, describes this process in greater detail. “Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) are collaborative approaches to growth and learning. The team includes a mental health professional, certified equine specialist and, of course, the horses.
“The mental health professional observes the human participants – their interactions, body language, patterns and behavioral shifts from the ‘norm.’ The equine specialist’s role is to keep the session focused on the horses and to work alongside the mental health professional, creating a co-facilitating team.”
She continues, “The horses will be horses, and the clients will be themselves, so there are no expectations or predictions regarding how each session will go. Therefore, it is essential that the equine specialist deliver safety, – for both the horses and clients – as well as an opportunity for meaningful outcomes.
“This is experiential work, meaning that participants will learn about themselves and others by participating in activities and completing various tasks with the horses. After each exercise, the personal experiences and observations of each participant are identified and processed through a discussion of thoughts, beliefs, behaviors and patterns.
“Both the mental health professional and equine specialist have been trained to ask questions in a specific way that allows participants to reveal their own experience without the influence of descriptive (biased) language. Whether we are working with an individual, family, group or corporate organization, our goal is to expand one’s personal insight while fostering new facets within interpersonal relationships.”
Since equine therapy involves variable conditions such as high-spirited animal instincts and subjective human perceptions, these sessions do not follow a one-size-fits-all approach. “There is no ‘cookie cutter’ formula. We individually reference the reasons each client has sought therapy. Then, we design tasks for them to undertake, along with the horses, in order to create a metaphor for ‘real life’ scenarios. Therefore, every activity relates to what happens at home, school, work, in relationships, you name it.
“EAGALA activities are designed to recreate situations that a client might be experiencing. These activities are chosen specifically for each client or group based on a treatment plan or goal. The activity could be simple like brushing the horse, or complicated like setting up an obstacle course then training the horse to walk through it. Our job is to structure activities accordingly, with creativity being key, and the list of possible activities is virtually endless,” Sutherland-Hoyt explains.
She adds, “Simply because of their size and power, horses can seem intimidating. However, this dynamic actually provides a wide range of opportunities to overcome fears and instill confidence. It’s amazing to observe how, when in their own element, horses mirror human emotions, attitudes, personalities and moods. They also have well-defined roles and hierarchies within their herds, as do humans.
“I often observed this while photographing wild Mustang herds on the Nevada desert. Due to the reflective nature of my therapeutic work, I see relationships improve through the expanded insights that result from each session’s processing phase. Participants begin recognizing how what happened while interacting with the horses unfolded in an eerily similar manner to their actual life experiences or relationships.”
The Equine Assisted Grown and Learning Association emerged from a trend in psychotherapy which traces back to the late 1960s. During this time, mental health professionals noticed how children with physical, emotional or developmental limitations would become highly responsive while riding or caring for horses.
However, the current EAGALA model does not involve mounted horsemanship, suggesting instead that “humans benefit from learning and problem-solving exercises grounded in existent strengths and skills. This distinguishes the EAGALA model from other horse-related therapies that involve riding.
“Horsemanship is about an instructor directing specific skills with horses. For us, it’s about the clients or individuals just being themselves. We focus on human skills rather than horse skills. Moreover, EAGALA generally produces positive outcomes in fewer sessions. Studies show that EAP/EAL is either equally or more effective than established interventions like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy,” clarifies Sutherland-Hoyt.
Not only does equine therapy mitigate a broad spectrum of complications, it also accommodates diverse backgrounds, experiences and character traits. “Anyone who is eager to explore personal insights and interpersonal relationships can benefit from EAP/EAL. We’ve found it especially helpful for those with trauma history to combat the effects of stress, childhood neglect or sexual abuse.
“This model can assist with parent-child difficulties, the grief process and social anxieties. Many EAP/EAL practitioners also specialize in particular areas such as addiction or autism, for example. As a rule of thumb, effective therapy can be conducted in about six to eight sessions. This streamlined timeframe is possible due to our strengths-based and client-centered approach,” notes Sutherland-Hoyt.
She concludes, “Our sessions take place at ‘A Dandy Ranch,’ located in Myakka City which is also the home of Janet Margerison, the equine specialist I collaborate with. Although it’s a significant drive from the Sarasota-Manatee area, this haven offers a perfect pastoral setting for emotional healing to unfold.”
The afternoon my sister and I spent amongst these astute creatures was a journey of self-discovery. They innately sense human pathos at its core – an enlightening and humbling revelation. I’ve since learned to value other people’s perspectives, while voicing my own opinions as well. Furthermore, I’ve recognized that relationships thrive when dialogue is evenly exchanged and feelings are validated. Horses taught me that.
Louise Sutherland-Hoyt, M. Ed., CAGS, is a licensed Mental Health Counselor with over 15 years of experience, working with teenagers and adults. Her practice, Benchmark Counseling, specializes in the following areas of expertise: Anxiety, Codependence, Depression, Addiction and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. For more information, visit her website BenchmarkCounseling.net.
Janet Margerison is an EAGALA-certified equine specialist who operates and resides at A Dandy Ranch. Her equine therapy program focuses on the following issues: Grief and Trauma, PTSD, ADHD, ADD and Asperger’s Syndrome. Her services are available for youth, families, school groups and corporate organizations.
Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer is the Managing Editor of Natural Awakenings Sarasota-Manatee. She also works as a freelance writer, blogger and social media marketer, based in Southwest Florida. Her personal blog,HealthBeAHippie.Wordpress.com, features practical tips for embracing a fit, nutritious and empowered lifestyle.