Equine Assisted Therapy Explained

 

Utah The Deseret News carried a story on July 27, 2000 by Carma Wadley about a program for equine assisted therapy:

The assignment seemed fairly easy: Two five-member teams each had to get their horse to jump over a board placed across two buckets in the center of the arena.

Then Greg Kersten spelled out the conditions: they could not touch the horse, they could not bribe or simulate bribing of the horse, they could not use anything that was outside the arena, they could not use any ropes or halters and they could not talk to other team members.

Still, he stressed, that's only five things you can't do; everything else you can do.

The teams had one minute to plan strategy and then three minutes to get the horse to jump over the board.

Team No. 1 placed its members in strategic locations, tried a lot of hand-waving, whistling, moving around. The horse, a white stallion named Mister, was not interested.

Team No. 2 had a turn. Hand-waving; whistling, clapping hands, chasing the horse. No cooperation from their horse either, a beautiful gray named Jazz.

Team No. 1 tried again. More of the same. Team No. 2 tried again. Team No. 1 and Team No. 2 in three-minute increments. By now the frustration level was building. "This horse is retarded," muttered one team member. "Horses move faster than cows," said another, "we'll never get him to do it."

Kersten called a time-out. Stop and think a minute, he said. You are trying the same things over and over again. "That's a good definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results."

Finally, the teams realized they had been focusing only on what they couldn't do instead of what they could do. They could enlist the help of other people standing inside the arena. They could move the horses into a round holding pen that was part of the arena. They could move the jump in front of the door of the pen. They could complete their task.

So, Kersten asked, what resulted in success? Teamwork. Making the boundaries smaller, more defined. Learning from the mistakes of others. A change of attitude. "Going from the idea of 'stupid horse' to looking for creative solutions made a big difference."

The exercise was part of a demonstration of how horses can be used in behavioral therapy, sponsored by EGALA -- Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, a national nonprofit certification and education organization. Directing the demonstrations were Kersten, a former addictions counselor, and Lynn Thomas, a licensed clinical social worker, who own and operate Equine Services Inc., a company based in Santaquin.

Participating in the activities at the Draper Arena were a group from Heritage School in Utah County, as well as some interested families from the area. Also on hand was Bill Boswell, a well-known horse trainer from Goshen.

Many of the therapy techniques were developed by Kersten, a co-founder of EGALA, and involve both a trained horseman and a therapist. That's for safety, as well as the fact that two heads and four eyes can better pick up on everything that's happening, he said. And most of the activities are conducted with clients on the ground, so riding skills and knowledge of horses is not required.

But the idea, said Thomas, is to use a non-verbal communicator --the horse -- to teach humans about themselves and their interactions with others, as well as to improve their communication skills.

And horses are great teachers, said Kersten, who wore a T-shirt proclaiming "I'd rather be on a horse than on drugs."

Amanda Carpenter and Amanda Whissler, substance-abuse counselors at House of Hope who recently completed a three-day EGALA Level I certification program in Palos Verdes, Calif., agree. "We had a total epiphany," said one of the Amandas. "We don't want to do any therapy without horses," said the other.

There is something magical about the human-horse bond, about the energy levels involved, they say. "A lot of animals are used in therapy," said Whissler. But with horses, there's the respect factor. "You can't bully them. If you give respect, you get respect."

One of the activities in their certification session involved putting a client on the back of a horse, which then circled around the therapist as the therapist asked questions. "And you could tell if the person was lying," said Carpenter. "The energy levels were totally different. The person who was lying was tense, would grip the horse harder, would find it harder to manipulate the horse, to the point where the horse would stop. The response of the horse to that non-verbal communication was just amazing."

As part of his workshop, Kersten had three volunteers catch horses and put halters on them. He talked about approaches. He had others lay the lead ropes on the ground and walk around the horses, all the time watching what the horses did. He talked about the differences in meaning of where you stand.

You get a horse to stop by coming up in front of it, he said, just as you get a person to stop. You can get it to move by applying pressure from behind. "But side-by-side is the relationship zone. That's where you have to feel comfortable -- with horse or with human."

What does it take to build that relationship? "Looking, listening and following directions," he said. "Those are the three ingredients involved in respect. That's true for horses. That's true for humans."

It's amazing, he said, how you can use horses to break down the things you do all the time into simple lessons. "And once you learn it with horses, it's easier to transfer it to people."

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, or EAP as it is called, is a relatively new field. EGALA, established to promote, educate and provide standards of practice, ethics and safety in the field, is just a year old. "We want people to know that EAP is more than horsemanship and riding classes," said Thomas.

Equine therapy, which involves clinical professionals, has been shown to be effective in treating a variety of mental health and human development needs, she said, such as behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, anger management, conflict resolution, relationship problems and communications. They do corporate retreats and family sessions and work with troubled teens.

EAP is experiential in nature. Participants learn about themselves by participating in activities with horses and then discussing feelings, behaviors and patterns.

Why horses? They offer several advantages, said Kersten. For one thing, their size offers a perfect opportunity for some to overcome fear and develop confidence. "Accomplishing a task involving the horse, in spite of those fears, creates confidence and provides for wonderful metaphors for dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations."

Horses are social animals, with distinct personalities, attitudes and moods. Working with them and caring for them requires effort --there's no easy way out. No quick tricks.

Most importantly, said Kersten, horses have the ability to mirror exactly what human body language is telling them. People complain that the horse is stubborn or antagonistic. "But the lesson to be learned is that if they change themselves, the horses respond differently."

And that's a lesson well worth learning.

For more information on equine-assisted therapy, contact EGALA toll-free at 877-858-4600; or visit the Web site: www.eagala.org

 


 


 


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