A month after completing my EAGALA part one and two courses, I am finally ready to recount the experience. There was a huge amount to take in, both in terms of how to practice equine assisted activities (EAA – other terms commonly used are equine assisted psychotherapy/learning [EAP/EAL], but I’ll stick with the broader term here), and about myself as a person, so it’s taken me a while to unpackage it all and begin to properly process it. The experience was completely transformative, and unlike anything I’ve been through before, so it’s been a bit of a shock to the system!
I’d had the courses booked since April, thanks to funding through the charity I volunteer with, and in the build up, all I felt was excitement. This is a little unusual for me, because although most people who know me would define me as an extrovert, I’m not all that confident among a large number of strangers, and I hate networking with a passion. I think the excitement came for two reasons – I was going to be meeting “my” people, others who wanted to practice EAA, so we’d have that in common; I would be able to enjoy an entire week of what I really wanted to do, rather than a day squidged between the standard runs of my day job, which I’m not relishing.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, and although I felt naive for walking in with my eyes shut to what might happen, it probably meant that I experienced things in the truest sense. You can qualify for EAGALA certification as either a mental health specialist or an equine specialist – due to my lack of mental health or counselling qualifications, I come under the latter, which is fine – and their model states that each session must be conducted with a mental health and an equine practitioner present. The training is in the model, not the skills themselves (there’s nothing about caring for horses or horsemanship, for example, as well as there being nothing on how to be a counsellor), so practitioners from both parts of the team attended both courses.
The training is designed to be experiential, but there were some dissatisfied people during the first course – as experienced mental health practitioners who have undertaken a lot of training previously, they found the experiential element to be lacking and thought that the course was more about observing. I was glad that I volunteered to be part of a dummy group, as I got more of an experience in the first course than some people did, and I was surprised that I didn’t react all that much (there was a point during the activity where I felt triggered, but I was able to deal with the feeling and move on at that point).
Part two was where I came unstuck! I felt a real low, that I was being judged by some of the other participants as not being good enough (there was some good learning about self-awareness and taking things personally!), and I found it a very draining emotional experience. There was one incident in particular which I felt we really weren’t given an opportunity to process, and one of the big takeaways for me was how important it is to get on with and trust the team you choose to work with.
But I worked my way through the entire course. I went alone, I left having made some fantastic new friends. I learned a huge amount, both about myself and what it is to be a practitioner and how to practice. EAGALA’s recommendation is that you attend part one individually, but that you attend part two as part of your treatment team, and having seen what the activities are like, I’m keen to do so. My co-facilitators are hoping to go next year, and I’d like to repeat part two with them: it’s a chance for us to practice in a “safe” environment both in terms of the “clients” (pretend ones!) and being supervised by the course facilitators and our peers. We might even get experimental with our ideas and try a few new things out! Either way, I think it’d be a fantastic experience and one which would boost my confidence further and see me take another leap in terms of my skills.
Back at home, I’ve already seen a huge positive difference in my skills as a facilitator – I’m using “clean language” skills I learned on the course, making more astute and informed observations, and picking up on what our clients and team need. It’s helped to galvanise the team and bring a sense of unity. And some of the positive impacts have extended into my non-EAGALA life. The biggest difference has been to my confidence as a facilitator – thanks to the certificate and my team, I now believe that I really can do this, and that over time I’ll only get better. I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the journey brings, particularly when I’m able to make the leap to practicing full time. For now, I look forward to my days off with a new assurance that I can, do and will continue to make a difference.