Equine therapy demystified

I’ve been trying to write this post since I blogged on my retirement and change of direction back in March, but for one reason or another, I kept getting stuck.  I also intended to post this as part of my equestrian content… then remembered that equine therapy isn’t about equestrians, and that I should be attempting to reach my mainstream audience, so here we are.

The reason I’ve kept putting this off is that it’s a subject which is very important to me, and I was frightened of not getting it across correctly.  But I’ve spent the last few days explaining what equine therapy is (as I’ve started a new job and everyone wants to know why a childless 28-year old only works part time), so I’ve honed my description a little further.

I like the term “equine therapy”, although it’s not conventionally used within the industry as a descriptor.  The more accurate term is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) or Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP): the problem with EAP is that it can sound frightening, and the problem with EAL is that nobody knows what that means – they even get stuck with “equine”, because they’re so bamboozled by the words which follow it.  So I’ve started saying that I’m a trainee equine therapist (rather than an equine assisted learning facilitator – how pretentious!  And what a mouthful!) – the only occasional snag with using equine therapy as a term, is that people think I’m treating horses.  But that’s usually easily recovered.

So I say that I’m training to be an equine therapist – that it means I help people using horses, and that’s true.  In a nutshell, that’s what we do.  Experience and training have led us to develop a selection of games which we can play with our clients and the horses, in order to subtly teach various things.  Horses act as a mirror for people, and teach the required lessons in a non-confrontational and non-judgmental way: rather than being told by a therapist that someone is a bad parent, or has caused a problem, the horses demonstrate how a person’s actions impact someone else, which communicates the message in a friendlier way.

We don’t teach people to ride, but they do handle the horses: sessions with us typically start with grooming, in order to allow everyone a chance to calm down (visitors tend to arrive with a lot of energy, whether it’s excitement or nerves!) and get used to being in the company of the horses.  Groups will undertake exercises such as building an obstacle course and ultimately leading a pony sympathetically around it, or having to shepherd a pony into a box without touching it, but sometimes all that’s needed is for the parents or carers to unload and the children to run around in a safe open space.

Sometimes, there still isn’t an awful lot of science to what we do, and part of that is due to the fact that you can’t control the reaction you’ll get: I spent about eight weeks doing the same exercise repeatedly due to the number of new clients we received, and I haven’t yet seen two groups react to it in the same way.  So as a therapist, it’s fascinating work.  It’s a puzzle for us too, figuring out what someone needs in order to get the help they require.  Watching the horses teach just by being horses is fun, and I often wonder how I was ever effective as a horseperson and as a human being before I knew what I know now.  Somehow, I managed, but I know I’ve improved since switching gears, and the fact that I’ve improved is what motivates me to help other people.

I knew a long time ago that I would never make a doctor, nurse, dentist, policewoman, fire fighter or any other traditional “helping” career.  It’s taken me a long time to match my favourite activity with a desire to help others, but I’ve found the answer, and hopefully it’ll keep taking me to places I had no idea existed.

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One thought on “Equine therapy demystified

  1. Pingback: Wordless Wednesday: equine therapy | Kicking On

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