Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) has been practiced since the 1990s and was pioneered by American’s, Barbara Rector and Linda Kohanov. Linda is the author of the book, ‘The Tao of Equus’, translated as, ‘The way of the horse’. The book follows the relationship Linda had with her own horse and how she started to notice Rasa responding to her emotional and psychological difficulties.
Horses are prey animals and have relied on their instincts and changes in energy for thousands of years to survive in a world of predators. The herd is so sensitive to energy that a threat to one individual horse’s senses can alert the whole herd within milliseconds, allowing them all to run to safety. This makes horses incredibly powerful teachers to humans, who may lack the sensitivity they need in their lives to overcome addictions and relationships with family, friends and partners, and ultimately themselves.
Irvin Yalom, an American Psychotherapist and author of Psychotherapy literature says, “it is the relationship that heals”. The relationship between person and horse forms the central focus in Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, with the therapist and horse working together to help the client understand their energy and start to build trust and a safe relationship to be themselves.
Therapy horses will only respond to clients who are congruent in how they present and can recognise when a client’s body language does not match their internal dialogue or the energy they are emitting. The horse then behaves with caution and may not come close enough for the client to make physical contact, or may even run away if the client’s energy is strong. Clients can gain a different response from the horse if they change their energy or allow themselves to present to the horse with how they genuinely feel inside.
Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy draws on other psychotherapies, such as Body Psychotherapy, Somatic experiencing and Psychodrama. Clients can see aspects of themselves and their lives played out by a horse or between a herd of therapy horses. This allows the client to accept reflections of themselves, because they recognise that the horse(s) do not have any agenda and are simply responding to what their sense are telling them.
Unlike traditional room-based therapies, EFP takes place outside in a field. The benefit of just being outside in nature are beneficial according to research by environmental Science and Technology (2010), they found that walking outdoors was, “useful clinically as a supplement to existing treatments” for major depressive disorder. Another study by the Journal for Affective Disorders (2012) stated, “Every green environment improved both self-esteem and mood” and “the mentally ill had one of the greatest self-esteem improvements.”
EFP harnesses the power of nature with the power of working with horses and engages clients in a series of Active, Reflective and Creative exercises to help clients understand and work through energy blocks in their bodies, caused by trauma in their nervous system. It is the combination of interventions that allows clients to free themselves and find new ways of being.
Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy can build self-esteem for those who need to. Gentle leadership is incorporated into sessions, where clients learn to work in partnership with the horse. Horses need to feel safe when working with humans and often gain confidence from their handler’s levels of confidence. Asking a horse to move forwards and backwards and getting the desired response can be incredibly empowering for clients. Moving an 800Kg horse with a lead rope can be life changing for survivors of sexual or physical abuse. Finding the energy to do so can be translated into relationships with humans.
EFP exercises can tap into client’s resources that they were not even aware were they had. The spontaneity of the sessions can allow learning that may just never happen in other therapies, because the horses are often at liberty, free to interact or walk away. This is most powerfully illustrated when working with EFP in groups. Clients can observe a horse responding totally differently to one individual working with a horse to when they work with the horse on the same task. Reflection on seeing such differences offer learning for the whole group, as with any group work.
There are growing number of EFP Practitioners in the UK following the growth and success of EFP in American and Australia. Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy is in its infancy in the UK, but is already being used in the treatment of addictions and PTSD.
Clinics in the UK have already shown successful outcomes in working with horses in therapy. Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy is likely to grow in popularity, as more practitioners and evidence based research supports this unique and beneficial intervention.