Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

What is Gestalt Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?

Far from being “therapy in a paddock”, Gestalt Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a deliberately structured therapeutic approach in which client, therapist and horse partner to create a unique and rich learning environment centred upon present moment awareness.

It involves the use of specifically designed exercises, or “experiments” through which to explore the individual’s therapeutic goals and needs. This may involve –

  • Simply observing the horses (it may not even be necessary to touch or approach the horse for therapeutic needs to be met
  • Meeting with horses in specific activities such as leading, grooming or interactive exercises
  • Only occasionally, for specific reasons and with the client’s consent, does it involve closely supervised mounted exercises in which the individual is accompanied in a self-reflective process

It is in the present moment that we may truly come to know ourselves. “Wherever you go, there you are” (Jon Kabat-Zinn).

What better way to meet yourself than through a safe relationship with another, horses offering what others may have not. Herd animals with acute sensitivity, horses offer immediate and authentic feedback to what you are doing and who you are being in the present moment.

What better way to know yourself than through a supported therapeutic environment in which it is the therapist’s job not to give you the answers but to support an environment in which you may explore these for yourself? Gestalt Equine Assisted Therapy is offered by a registered psychotherapist or registered mental health practitioner only. It is the therapist’s job to hold the process within a theoretically defined framework.

What better way to expanded choice and health than through the exploration of unfinished business, wounds and adjustments, ways of relating and the stories we tell about ourselves?

Why Horses?

It is more than the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.

  • A herd and prey animal, horses are acutely sensitive to others and to the environment around them. Responding to present moment needs, horses role model embodied self-awareness and provide honest and interactive feedback to those around them. Horses are not simply a mirror. They offer unique exchange.
  • Like humans, horses are social animals operating in hierarchical groups with defined roles and relationships. They enable us to explore both the predatory and prey aspects of our psyche
  • Horses offer people the opportunity for relationship based on safety and trust
  • The unique nature of horses is such that they provide direct and immediate feedback on behaviours, intentions and inconsistencies. Through this, we are offered an avenue for choice, growth and relationship

What is it not?

Source: Equine Psychotherapy Australia

  • Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is not psychotherapy for horses. It is a therapeutic approach to assisting people
  • It is not horsemanship and does not involve training people to be able to train horses
  • It is not horse riding and is not aimed at teaching people to ride
  • It is not Hippotherapy in which Occupational Therapists support clients in physical therapy
  • It is not Riding for the Disabled, which offers people with a physical or intellectual disabilities the opportunity to learn to ride horses and horsemanship.

What is it suitable for?

As in room based therapy, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is employed to address a broad range of client needs and goals, including -

  • Personal and spiritual growth
  • Trauma and abuse
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attachment issues – patterns of relating to others
  • Interpersonal Issues
  • Leadership
  • Conflict resolution

How Effective is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is an innovative and relatively new form of therapy and has not sufficiently demonstrated its efficacy to be recognised as evidence based practice. This is important to note when choosing a therapy, and advice may be sought as to which treatments are considered best practice in treating various conditions.

Nevertheless, studies and suitable research tools are being developed to examine the efficacy of Equine Assisted Therapy, and personal experience is also considered to be a suitable avenue at this stage for people to decide whether it works for them.

“Research suggests that the long term benefits depend on active experiencing of new situations and experiences, and on the quality of processing and integrating the equine experience, facilitated by specialist trained, qualified and experienced mental health practitioners. Thus, it is a combination of evocative and reflecting capacities of horses, the natural connecting capacity, and the skills of experienced psychotherapists or mental health practitioners that together weave the opportunity for growth in experience and reflection” (Equine Psychotherapy Australia).

Relevant Research

Source: Equine Psychotherapy Australia

Aduddell, M.M. (2003). Effects of equine Assisted Psychotherapy on adolescent attitudes and behaviours. Unpublished manuscript. Colorado Christian University.

Bray, B. (2002). Treating adolescents using Equine Assisted Psychotherapy: Effects on self concept, anxiety and depression. Unpublished Masters thesis Whitman College.

Emory, D.K. (1992). Effects of therapeutic horsemanship on the self concept and behaviour of asocial adolescents. Unpublished dissertation. University of Maine.

Frewin, K. and Gardiner, B. (2005). New age or old sage? A review of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. The Australian Journal of Counselling Psychology, 6, pp. 13 – 17.

Greenwald, A.J. (2001). The effect of a therapeutic horsemanship program on emotionally disturbed boys. Dissertation Abstracts International, 62.

Hutchinson, J. (2009). Equine Assisted Psychotherapy: Horses are still helping us today. Unpublished manuscript. Pioneer Pacific College.

Kaiser, L., Spence, L.J., Lavergne, A.G. and Bosch, K.L. (2004) Can a week of therapeutic riding make a difference? A pilot study. Anthroozoos, 17, pp. 63-72.

Klontz, B.T. Bivens, A., Leinert, D., and Klontz, T. (2007). The effectiveness of Equine Assisted Experiential therapy: Results of an open clinical trial. Society and Animals, 15, 257-267.

Russel-Martin, L.A. (2006). Equine facilitated couples therapy and solution focused couples therapy: A comparative study. Doctorate of Philosophy, Northcentral University.

Schneiderhacker, M., Friedrich, D., and Bender, W. (2002). About the treatment of Long term observations and results of an experimental clinical trial. Society and Animals, 15, 257-267.

Shult, B. (2005). The effects of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy on psycho-social functioning of at risk adolescents ages 12-18. Unpublished Masters thesis. Denver Seminary. Denver, CO.

Tetreault, A. (2006). Horses that heal: The effectiveness of Equine Assisted Growth and Learning on the behaviour of students diagnosed with Emotional Disorder. Unpublished Maters thesis. Colorado Christian University.

Trotter, Say, Sudekum (2006) The efficacy of Equine Assisted group counselling with at risk children and adolescents. Doctorate of Philosophy (Counselling) University of North Texas.

Zugich, M., Klontz, T., and Leinart, D. (2002). The miracle of equine therapy. Counselor Magazine, 3 (6), pp. 22- 27.

A Note of Thanks

My deepest thanks, respect and appreciation go to Ms Megan Kirby who has established Equine Psychotherapy Australia to ensure the professional and ethical development of Equine Assisted Therapy for both horse and human alike.

My thanks also to Mr Noel Haarburger, co-facilitator of the Foundation Equine Studies 2013 for the depth and breadth of the Gestalt theoretical frame that lends itself to this work.

But most of all, thanks to you both and to the 2013 “tribe” who together created a spectacular learning environment.