In the presence of horses, one recognizes something within the horse that is echoed within oneself. This creates a wonderful learning atmosphere, allowing the horse to teach us about ourselves as humans and, through our relationship with the horse, how to treat not only other living creatures but also one another.
~Lanie Frick, Of Horses and Women
Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center, with its lush sloping pastures and verdant woods, has a gentle, benevolent energy. It’s a place where healing happens, which is why I found myself driving to the unromantic-sounding town of Tobaccoville, North Carolina, in late April.
I had enrolled in “The Power of Working with Horses for Health and Personal Growth: An Introductory Workshop on Equine-Assisted Therapies for Professionals in Health Care and Education.” A mouthful, to be sure, but an exciting first step in my dream of practicing equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP).
Dr. Doreen Hughes, a Winston-Salem psychiatrist and proprietor of Hughes Equine Energy, led the workshop along with Laura Pallavicini, Riverwood’s program director and therapeutic riding instructor. Both EAGALA certified, they formed the treatment team, comprised of a mental health professional, an equine specialist, and—of course—a horse. The team approach is essential: it allows the equine specialist to focus on horse behavior while the mental health professional attends to the client.
The real star of the team is the horse (or horses—EAP may involve one or more equines). A handout from the workshop describes their role thus:
Horses are both prey animals and herd animals. They are exquisitely sensitive to nonverbal stimuli, and give clear and authentic feedback when interacting with others, including humans. They are social and seek relationships, and have distinctive personalities and differing roles in their herd. They are large, powerful, and can be quite intimidating. All of these factors result in interactions with them offering multiple opportunities for metaphorical learning that relates to other life situations that are fearful or confusing.
I learned that EAP can be used to treat mood and anxiety disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse, conduct difficulties, communication issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, and excessive anger. Here are a few of the cognitive and behavioral patterns that indicate a need for EAP:
-disconnection from feelings
-lack of response to traditional talk therapy
-concentration and attention problems
-anger management issues
-inability to take responsibility for one’s actions
My fellow attendees were mainly counselors, RNs, and social workers—a gentle, good-natured bunch. We listened closely as Doreen spoke before we began interacting with the horses.
“In my work, I’m struck by the importance of relationships for all of us,” Doreen said. “We all are actually wounded. The way we heal ourselves is through our relationships. For some of us, it’s through people; for some, it’s through pets. Horses are remarkable because they’re so open to relationships. Building a relationship with a horse is a most powerful thing.”
For our first activity, we observed four horses in the arena. Laura and Doreen intentionally withheld the horses’ names, breed, age, and gender, making them blank slates for us to project our thoughts and emotions on. I became obsessed with a paint draft who bullied a straggle-tailed chestnut, forcing it to move ceaselessly. When the chestnut stood near me, I silently said, “You can do it. You’re more powerful than you know.” Even as I formed those words, I knew I was talking about myself and old feelings of futility and runtiness. Yup, horses definitely draw out our emotional baggage.
If this had been an individual, actual EAP session, Laura, Doreen, and I might have done some processing on the spot. The bulk of the processing, however, would take place with a therapist in an office after the fact. The mental health practitioner who takes part in the equine-assisted activity always documents what happens and notes progress made toward treatment goals, passing along the information to the client’s primary therapist as needed.
Most EAP sessions at Riverwood last anywhere from a half hour to 45 minutes. “Occasionally we’ll have a psychotherapy session where the client spends an hour with the horses,” said Laura. “Those are where we hear about the most ‘aha’ moments.”
“Wherever a client wants to go, we go there,” added Doreen. “We can go pretty deep.”
This is the first of a two-part series. My next post will detail an intense equine activity and wisdom gained from the workshop.