Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is a specialized form of psychotherapy using the horse as a therapeutic tool. This modality is designed to address self-esteem and personal confidence, communication and interpersonal effectiveness, trust, boundaries and limit-setting, and group cohesion. Substantial numbers of children witness family violence. There is evidence that violence between parents has adverse effects on the children in the family. These children are at greater risk of behavioural problems and mental health disorders, including anxiety, anger, depression and suicidal ideations, withdrawal, low self-esteem, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and PTSD in later life.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy is a short-term, collaborative effort between a therapist and a horse professional. The primary goal of EAP is to generate positive engagement with clients utilizing an experiential- and animal-based treatment modality. An equine specialist and a therapist work together to plan safe treatment sessions. The modality is closely related to Gestalt therapy in that a basic tool of the therapy is the use of body language. Equine-assisted psychotherapy is an experiential approach to psychotherapy based on the use of metaphors. A basic goal of EAP is to encourage client insight through horse examples. Horses have a variety of characteristics that are similar to humans, and they respond to non-verbal behaviour of the human interacting with them. Individuals are often unaware of their behaviour until they can understand it through the way in which the horse reflects it back to them. Work with the horse supports and encourages the identification and expression of feelings. Interventions or activities are planned around the concept of the horse’s reflective behaviour. Interventions are tailored to each individual and their needs as assessed by the psychotherapist, and the client. Some examples follow. Grooming the horse is learned and practiced. The client becomes acutely aware that the horse will only lift their hoof for inspection if the horse chooses to do so. The client is unable to force the horse to do this. Clients sometimes perceive resistance or an unwillingness by the horse to lift its hoof, which may lead the client to have feelings of fear, inadequacy, and/or anger and frustration. At this time, the opportunity for the therapist to help the client process these feelings is immediate and powerful. This is done by calling attention to the client’s feelings and encouraging them to talk about them. The client soon learns that the horse is more likely to respond when she or he is less fearful and/or angry. The outdoor setting invites an awareness of one’s physical being and stimulates the senses. Special attention to awareness of one’s body is essential for safety, which is used as a demonstration of how it is in the rest of the world. When children are unable to understand their place in the world, they may often feel themselves to be insignificant or invisible. By instructing them about how to approach the horse (e.g. remaining in their line of vision and approaching the horse until the animal can see who is coming), the child experiences their place in relation to others within their environment. While providing for the child’s safety, the therapist helps the child to see how they fit into the world. Children are able to make connections with the horse, which facilitates vulnerability. They may be in a large enclosure with the horse, and be instructed to encourage the horse to move using their tone of voice and body language. This allows the client to move from powerlessness to seeking support to feelings of success.