Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
Equine therapy offers them a therapeutic environment that can feel less threatening and more inviting than a traditional talk therapy office. The majority of children participating in EAP are between the ages of 6 to 18 years old. Children often find it difficult to open up and process painful emotions and experiences. Equine-assisted psychotherapy allows youth, and people of all ages, to work on issues such as:
Developing and maintaining relationships
Trust in others
Trust in self
EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is highly effective in mental health approaches and positive behaviour supports.
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE AHA EAP PROGRAM
Mel Mardon, presenter of this program offers 25 years lived experience with horses, children, youths, and adults and practiced this program with great success and evidence-based outcomes in South Africa, Namibia and now in Australia as well. She is a registered Specialist Behaviour Support Practitioner, Life coach, PTSD Counsellor, Cognitive Behavioral Therapist, Counsellor, with various other diplomas, certifications and registrations in the mental health sector. In addition, she is the co-coordinator of the Mental Health Professionals Network Blacktown with Professor Vlasios Brakoulias (Executive Director of Mental Health, Western District), the coordinator of the MHPN Gordon/Chatswood network and an active member of various other MHPN networks in New South Wales. Following the murders of her two eldest sons a year apart, she opted to bring her youngest son to Australia to give him a new chapter to life. Horses were an integral part of both their healing process following these lived traumas and life in general in South Africa. Her now 15-year-old son was diagnosed with Complex PTSD and Dyslexia and Mel applied her approaches of healing through horses to assist him in finding strategies and managing his challenges.
Why choose equine assisted therapy?
People have sought out relationships with horses since we first laid eyes on each other. Riding horses can be exhilarating, but there’s something even more profound. That’s why many mental health professionals recommend the benefits of equine therapy. There are striking similarities between horses and people. Equine Therapy challenges people to look at themselves and the world in a new way. People who have struggled to make progress or achieve their treatment goals have made significant breakthroughs with the aid of equine therapy. Research has confirmed many equine therapy benefits. It lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, alleviates stress and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. Equine therapy also helps people struggling with addictions or mental illness. There are several life skills that a horse teaches better than a person. This is the primary benefit of using equine therapy with individuals facing mental illness, addiction, or behavioral issues.
UNDERSTANDING THE ENERGY FIELD BETWEEN HORSES AND HUMANS CAN HELP YOU BETTER CONNECT WITH YOUR HORSE.
As electromagnetic beings, we all have an energy field around us called the aura. Every human, every animal, each blade of grass, each animate and even inanimate object has a luminous body that surrounds and interpenetrates it and emits its own characteristic radiation.
In a herd of wild horses, this would be what is referred to as a “sixth sense”, since the horses are in dynamic communication with each other by feeling into the herd. If something is suspicious to one horse, the whole herd reacts. Each individual horse doesn’t have to “know” what is going on – he or she trusts the greater good of the herd.
This energetic tracking system innately built into our equine companions is also what helps them decipher what kind of a mood you are in and what you are feeling. Horses feel into us. If our energy field seems good, they can trust the greater good of our relationship with them.
This phenomenon is often called morphic resonance and/or swarm theory; the beings are part of a shared field of energy with its own identity, yet the individuals are autonomous within the field.
The field that includes you and your horse has a life of its own! As a unified field, it has a unique relationship to other beings and things all on its own. This may explain why button-pushing activities, like repeatedly spooking at the same flagpole, continue from your horse, whther you like it or not! As a unit, you have created a neural pathway.
After doing anything a few times, you create a neural pathway. You don’t need a manual to tie your shoes every day – it’s a neural pathway. Neural pathways become ingrained, deeply etched into the psyche of both human and horse and your combined energy field. Behaviour patterns get reinforced into this field of energy, and some of these patterns are not as innocuous as tying your shoes!
I talk a lot about the energetic field, and that is because horses are so “vulnerable” to energies, it is up to us to be the Emotional Leader. Being a leader doesn’t mean we have to be a tough alpha lead mare — it means that rather than reacting, we can remain neutral and maintain the ability to make sound decisions on behalf of both beings. Also, we can come to the relationship with the energy of intention. I set the intention with my animal companions of harmony. This means that my intention will inform my feelings, actions and penetrate the field of energy around me. Therefore, my horse(s) can’t help but to feel and respond to the intention.
Sound simple? Not so much. An entire natural horsemanship industry has been built because of this. We can’t help but get frustrated when our horses won’t get in the trailer or stand at the mounting block. Because horses are prey animals, the field of energy around them is more fine-tuned than that around predators (us). If our own field of energy is not exuding safety, our horses’ reactions may get bigger and bigger. This often triggers a less than favourable reaction from us, creating an endless bad biofeedback loop!
Weakened energy field
This negative loop weakens the energy field. What does this mean? It is believed that by the time something ends up as disease in the body, it has been developing in the energy field long before it manifests in physical form.
A weakened field could also mean that the horse is more susceptible to fight or flight behaviour. This isn’t safe for horse or rider. Often, we’ve inherited these challenges when we join forces with our new horse companions. Some of the behaviours’ we see weren’t even created with us.
Becoming the Emotional Leader
I bring up all these possibilities of what can go wrong in the energy field because the good news is that it’s all repairable. You don’t have to be some big energy worker, a magician, or a pet psychic. All it takes is a commitment to your connectivity as a partner to your horse. Part of this commitment is for you to step up and step into the relationship as the Emotional Leader.
Being an Emotional Leader doesn’t mean you have to come in with pristine emotions. You can have a bad day at work, a fight with a sibling, or be frustrated with a partner and still be committed to being the leader even if your field of energy is slightly weakened by the emotions running your world.
When your horse triggers you negatively, you might try a different reaction, like amusement, understanding or curiosity. By being available in this way, you are being fully present with him. Being present is all our horses are really asking of us.
I have found that when people play with the energy field surrounding themselves and their horses, they get to know their horses in a profound way. The trust deepens and the health and happiness of both improve.
Cardiac Coherence between horses and humans
Cardiac Coherence is the source of our inner power. It is physical and emotional harmony. When we are in coherence our nervous system and our other systems work harmoniously.
It has been found that our heart has a network of neurons (40,000) that work autonomously, much like a small brain. These neurons send signals directly to our brain. Despite its size, the electromagnetic field generated by this neuron system ranges from 90 centimetres to 2 metres, while the electromagnetic field generated by the brain itself oscillates between 3 centimetres and 2’5 metres.
The signals that the heart sends to the brain regulate our emotions. The heart has neurons with long and short-term memory. The signals these neurons send to the brain affect our emotional experiences. The electromagnetic field that the heart emits can also change, depending on the emotions we experience.
The heart sends much more information to the brain than the brain to the heart. In fact, 80% of the communication goes from the heart to the brain and only 20% the other way around. The heart generates 60 times more energy than the brain and the amplitude of its waves is 5,000 times bigger.
By being aware of this information we can see the relevance and importance of our emotions in our own life experience. “The heart is right”.
Feeling or remembering negative emotions unbalances our nervous system. When we feel negative emotions the heart sends signals to the brain, which in turn sends signals to the hormonal system. Some chemicals such as cortisol are released to the blood and can be harmful to our health if produced in excess. In this situation, our Heart Rate Variability is disordered and Incoherent.
An Incoherent Heart Rate Variability blocks cognitive functions such as attention, memory, perception and problem solving. In a state of incoherence, we are more likely to suffer stress, anxiety, apathy, depression, etc.
On the other hand, positive emotions generate physiological and psychological benefits. On the physiological level, evoking positive emotions such as love, joy, gratitude, compassion, etc., stimulates the immune system. Our health increases and we feel lighter. On the psychological level, positive emotions allow the brain to be more creative and to find efficient solutions to real problems. When we feel positive emotions the Heart Rate Variability generates Coherent waves that balance all the body systems. The ability to think clearly, to learn, to remember, to reason and to make right decisions is significantly increased. Then we find ourselves in Cardiac Coherence.
Talking about Cardiac Coherence is talking about efficiency. When we are in coherence, the nervous, cardiovascular, hormonal and immune systems work harmoniously and efficiently.
What are the benefits of being in Cardiac Coherence?
Cardiac Coherence increases our resilience — the ability to overcome hard situations by returning to our “normal” state — and sharpens our intuition.
In addition, Cardiac Coherence reduces stress and anxiety, strengthens the immune system, improves quality of sleep and raises our energy levels. It also improves attention and concentration and increases our learning ability and problem-solving skills.
Developing heart intelligence connects us deeper to ourselves and to others, having a great positive impact on our relationships. We trust our intuition more. Our self-confidence increases, as well as we relay more in others. Consequently, communication is free flowing. We are not alone in experiencing this state; people we interact with can feel it too. Electromagnetic fields also affect those around us.How can Horses contribute to the our Cardiac Coherence?
Horses have a heart’s electromagnetic field which is five times more powerful than ours, extending up to nine metres.
As mentioned above, our electromagnetic field affects people around us just as other people’s electromagnetic fields affect us. If we are surrounded by a herd of horses in coherence, the effect over us can be overwhelming.
The HeartMath Institute conducted a study with horses, in California, which scientifically proved the effects these animals can have on people.
Due to the laws of electromagnetic fields, when there is a predominant feeling on the field, the field orders itself. A disordered electromagnetic field wastes a lot of energy and is not efficient. When there is an intense electromagnetic field next to a milder field, the weaker one is attracted by the intense one and gets in tune with it. Likewise, when coherent fields are put together, they generate a larger and more powerful coherent field.
When horses live in freedom, as horses, they are in an almost permanent state of coherence. This happens when they are not under the stress of being locked in a stable for 24 hours a day —the equivalent would be to lock a person in a toilet.
A herd of horses in coherence generates a large and very powerful electromagnetic field. When we are around such a herd, the influence of the large field on us is almost immediate. Our electromagnetic field gets in tune with the larger one. We are attracted by the herd’s electromagnetic field and our field is regulated under its influence — we get in harmony with ourselves, we are in coherence.
Many people feel such a deep sensation they cannot hold back their tears. In general, they feel confused. However, this deep feeling is a releasing of hidden emotions — emotions that were generating a disordered and incoherent electromagnetic field.
Because of the very nature of the horses, they have the power to connect us with ourselves within a space of coherence. In this space, we release negative emotions, our intuition sharpens, and we can experience and see things clearly.
Living this experience helps us to know ourselves better, which increases our self-confidence, and we can find the necessary courage to make the appropriate changes in our habits and routines. In consequence, we experience a more enduring state of coherence in our lives.
Equine Therapy Benefit #1: Identifying and Coping with Feelings
Many people struggling with behavioural issues, trauma and other mental health issues don’t know how to cope with their feelings. They may display negative behaviours in an attempt to numb sadness, anger, fear or even joy. For therapy to be successful, one of the first steps is learning to identify, experience and cope with their emotions. Equine therapy is a powerful way to get in touch with thoughts and feelings. During equine therapy, you do not use your mind to address problems. For the addict, relying on your mind, often leads to denial, blaming others or intellectualizing your way around the problem. Instead, you must use your body and heart to feel and react in the moment. Horses have a unique ability to sense emotions and react accordingly. If you are angry or aggressive, the horse may become obstinate. If you are anxious, the horse may get skittish. But when approached by someone who is open and calm, the horse is more likely to respond in kind. Witnessing the horse’s response promotes self-awareness and can help people see themselves in a more realistic way.
Equine Therapy Benefit #2: Communication & Interpersonal Skills
Many people with any form of mental health issues are emotionally underdeveloped. They may have difficulty relating or getting close to other people. Yet they manage to establish close bonds with horses. Through working with horses, people recognize their patterns of interacting with others. Horses do not speak, but they are excellent communicators. Learning to understand horse behaviour can help people learn the way their behaviour impacts others. As a sophisticated herd animal, horses immediately begin building relationships with people as members of their herd. People then get to decide whether they will hold fast to their old ways of interacting or take this unique opportunity to develop a new kind of relationship. While riding can be part of equine therapy, the most important work happens during the interactions between the participant and horse. Exercises as simple as haltering, leading and grooming teach people how to approach others with respect and awareness. In equine therapy, people talk about what they see and feel. The therapist guides the person to see the horse’s responses with an objective lens. Thus, they begin to recognize the ways in which their perceptions are accurate or misguided. They also discover the ways they may be projecting their own issues onto others.
Equine Therapy Benefit #3: Setting Boundaries
Working with a horse can expose a person’s maladaptive thought and behaviour patterns. In an equine therapy session, metaphors are drawn between the client’s interaction with the horse and the patterns in their own lives. The therapist finds an opportunity to address issues like enmeshment and detachment in their family. Lessons may be as simple as how much physical space the horse needs to feel comfortable. Without any words at all, horses make clear when someone has crossed their boundaries. Trying to control or dominate will not work with a horse. Likewise, a detached or passive approach can make it difficult to lead a horse.
Equine Therapy Benefit #4: Overcoming Fears
Horses are large animals. Their strength and size can bring up unmet needs, fears, past trauma and feelings of inadequacy or lack of control. Many people fear that the horse won’t like them. They also fear the horse could hurt them physically or emotionally. Rather than giving in to their usual reaction – to escape or get defensive – people learn to tolerate and process the emotion. When doing equine work, it is like witnessing grace. When with horses, everything is exactly as it should be. These special animals allow people to bring all kinds of issues into the horse’s world and accept them as they are –
imperfections and all. In a safe environment, clients learn to face their fears. They build confidence in their ability to overcome challenges. Many people feel intimidated and nervous at first. Later they discover how quickly they process those feelings and find comfort in their relationship with the horse. Empowered by the experience, people may develop the confidence to address other fears. They then transfer these lessons to day-to-day life. Participants in the AHA Equine Program don’t have to love horses or have experience working with animals in order to benefit from equine therapy. They simply have to be willing to give treatment a chance and move in a different direction than they have in the past.
Equine Therapy Benefit #5: Trust
Horses are soothing, gentle animals. They are straightforward in their interactions without lying or manipulating. They do not judge or blame. Their presence alone can be healing. One example is a client who suffered brutal childhood abuse in her family. Rather than designing a directed equine therapy session, the client was allowed to sit in the paddock with the horse. After an hour or so, the client, visibly moved, said, “I’ve never had anybody so big be nice to me before.” This experience created an “alternative memory” for the client. Past memories taught her that anyone bigger or more powerful than her would mistreat her. Now she had a firsthand experience that showed her she could trust again. When people open themselves up, they grow in their ability to build relationships and to ask for help. Mel Mardon from Angel House Australia offers almost 23 years of working with people of all ages and horses. A public figure in the media and radio known as “the horse lady”, she has contributed to effectively changing the lives of children and adults of various ages, diverse circumstances, and traumatic experiences by using Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. After five years in Australia, she has now established a collaborative partnership with an equine centre in Terrey Hills to bring this most effective approach to therapy to Australian children and adults as well to achieve the desired outcomes they want in attaining their self-identified goals.
Other Benefits of Equine Therapy
These five benefits derived from EAP are key aspects and are just a few examples of the growth that happens through equine therapy. Other benefits of equine therapy include:
learning to accept responsibility
taking care of oneself and others
a sense of pride
an appreciation for the simple joys in life.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy overview
Equine assisted psychotherapy can help those who suffer from mental illness and addiction. Equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is a popular and effective form of animal-assisted therapy. Like people, horses are curious and social creatures. Horses communicate through body language, which makes them excellent therapy partners in mental health and addiction treatment centre programs.
Horses often mirror the emotional state of the person who is interacting with them. This provides instant feedback on feelings or thoughts that a person may not recognize in themselves but can recognize in the horse. A horse that is approached by someone who is agitated will likely behave in an agitated way as well, for example. This feedback can be used by the therapist as a foundation for individuals to learn
how their behaviour impacts others and how to improve their human relationships. As such, the benefits of equine therapy for behavioural issues and poor mental health are valuable to both clients and therapists alike.
What Happens During Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?
During equine-assisted therapy, participants groom, care for, walk, and interact with horses. The activity helps a trusting relationship to grow between the individual and the horse. Riding may be a part of this process however is not the focus of the program and is a reward for achieving certain set out goals in building a relationship with the horses and achieving horsemanship goals. For many people with behavioral issues and other mental health disorders, relationships are not easy to build.
As clients work with horses, a therapist will use guided imagery and metaphors to help individuals. These individuals will understand the life lessons they can learn from the horses and how they can apply those lessons to their own lives and relationships. Communication skills, leadership skills, boundaries, trust, awareness of behaviour, awareness of feelings, and increased focus are all common goals of equine therapy for behavioral issues and mental health treatment programs.
Who Can Benefit from Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?
Equine-assisted psychotherapy can be beneficial for people with a wide range of conditions, including:
Drug or alcohol addiction
The benefits of equine therapy are rewarding. The mere presence of a horse can have a calming and soothing effect. Whether someone has been formally diagnosed with a condition or not, they can certainly benefit from equine assisted therapy where they feel overwhelmed, is struggling with life’s challenges or self-concept. An equine therapy program therapist can ensure that participants get the most out of their time with the horse.