Why horses?

 

Horses are prey animals, therefore their basic instinct is to be always keen on the actions in their environment. (1) This instinct and the domestication determine that they give responses to human behavior as well (2). Language of horses is the body-language. Thus they do not care about the disguise given by words – they react only to human non-verbal communication: to the expression of feelings, to gestures, to behavior (1). Living in herd naturally, they are accustomed to social experiences very well. For these reasons horses pay attention and respond to details – to things which can be unnoticed by humans. (3) Like a good therapist does, they mirror our inner content, they show to us how much consistent our unintended expressions and intended verbal communication are. By the help of this mirror (and as well by the help of the interpretation by the therapist) the chance is given for us to realize our real feelings and to learn to express them in a congruent way (4).

There are different forms of relationship between a human and a horse depending on the horse's and person's potential and emotional development (5). A person can learn to groom the horse, or to make it run or, on the contrary, to stop in a round pen, or just observe it galloping on the meadow wildly and untamed. Of course, because of horse has a great and heavy body, a  patient can ride on it. Sitting on a horse's back and letting a horse walk  gives us vestibular (coordination, re-balancing, flowing with the rhythm) and tactile (warm, silky hair) stimulation. These sensory-motor experiences are very similar to human walking thus it has a good stimulating and corrective effect on the nervous system which is used by hyppotherapy. (6). Equine assisted therapy (EAP) enables a patient to build or rebuild his/her sense of body. A rider can experience as safe, 'good enough' and holding body contact environment, as it was (or wasn't) when she/he was a baby. Just as Katcher states: 'The ratio between body weight of a horse and a person is not unlike the ratio between body weight of mother and infant' (Katcher, 2001, quotes (4) p. 291). This cuddling-motion relaxes us, regress us to our preverbal existence (4) and thus helps us to correct our early childhood experiences. 

Their uninhibited, instinct-based behavior is also very useful in EAP. As Vidrine et al (2002) say: 'horses are, by and large, naked and unashamed. They get dirty and eat off the ground; they are hairy and, at times, sweaty and breathing hard. They relieve themselves when they need to, their genitals are visible,yet clients can safely physically interact with them on a fairly intimate basis (wrap their legs around them, brush them, hug and kiss them) at a pace they control.' ((4) p. 595). This free behavior is able to break the inhibitions and defenses (anxiety, repression, so on) built up by the society (or superego) in the patient. 

Horses don't judge us. They don't care or know whether we stutter, or we are too small for our age,  fat or skinny, whether we are black or white, our face is full of spots, wrinkles or freckle, we have no friends, or failed  a test in school (4). This unconditional acceptance is one of the most important factors in psychotherapy. 

Our everyday relationships with humans are too complex, unpredictable and sometimes painful. Being attached to an animal can be less frightening, easier to understand, more harmonic and relaxed. The animal's need to be groomed and loved can meet with the natural human need to take care of and to love someone (7). Working with horses often requires new perspectives, other ways of communication (e.g. assertively) or behavior, it gives a possibility to change old patterns. 

Last and not least in EAP horses can be metaphors. They elicit a range of feelings, emotions and behaviors in humans, thus horses are good 'objects' for projection and transference. The patient's interpretation of the horse's behaviors, reactions can reveal the meaning of the metaphor, which can be helpful for the therapist (and of course for the patient) in recognizing and addressing these reactions in therapy (8).

References:

  1. IRWIN, C. (1998) Horses Don’t Lie. What Horses Teach Us About Our Natural Capacity for Awaraeness, Confidence, Courage, and Trust. Marlowe & Company, 2001, New York.
  2. ROBERTS F., BRADBERRY, J., WILLIAMS, C. (2004) Equine-faciliataed psychotherapy benefits students and children. Holistic Nursing Practice; 18(1)
  3. LENTINI, J.A., KNOX, M.(2009) A Qualitative and Quantitative Review of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) with Children and Adolescents. The Open Complementary Medicine Journal; 1, 51-57
  4. VIDRINE, M., OWEN-SMITH, P., FAULKNER, P. (2002) Equine-facilitated group psychotherapy: applications for therapeutic vaulting. Issues in Mental  Health Nursing; 23: 587-603.
  5. MEHLEM, M. (2009) Dare to be afraid – Ways of Overcoming and Integrating Anxieties with the Help of Horses In. Equine facilitated psychotherapy: case studies and international reports (2009). FN Verlag, Warendorf. p. 20-39. 
  6. KLÜVER, B. (2009) Self-experience on horses. In.  Equine facilitated psychotherapy: case studies and international reports (2009). FN Verlag, Warendorf. p. 10-19. 
  7. HIRSCHMAN, E., C., (1994). Consumers and their animal companions. Journal of Consumer Research, 20,616-632. quotes TROTTER, K. S. (2006) The Efficacy of Equine Assisted Group Counseling with At-Risk Children and Adolescents. Doctor of Philosophy Thesis (Counseling), December.
  8. Klontz, B. T., Bivens, A., Leinart, D., Klontz, T. (2007) The Effectiveness of Equine-Assisted Experiential Therapy: Results of an Open Clinical Trial. Society and Animals 15 (2007) p. 257-267