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News & Views - Dec, 1996 Issue #43 

By: Greg Kersten, Equine Services Dir.
Lynn Thomas, Aspen Ranch Residential Dir.
Loa, Utah

What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)? The phrase is certainly not the easiest to say. However, it does accurately term an emerging field in which horses are used specifically as a tool for emotional growth and learning. Equine Services, a leader in this growing field, has teamed with Aspen Ranch, an adolescent treatment boarding school to develop a model facility. EAP is used as a major component to influence positive change in students and families. 

This model can be most efficiently explained as an experiential approach to working with young people. This means that clients learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses and then processing feelings, behaviors, and patterns. This may be related to therapeutic ropes courses. However, EAP has the added element of having living beings, horses, with different personalities, attitudes, and moods to create even more possibilities and dynamics. Because of this, using Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is very exciting with new situations and experiences always occurring. The following information describes ways Equine Assisted Psychotherapy can be used. 

At Aspen Ranch, licensed therapists team up with the equine specialist to conduct individual therapy sessions using the horses. This setting is not only more non-threatening than an office environment, especially with adolescents, but it is also more real. For instance, a student may be put on a horse bareback. The horse is guided by the equine specialist using a lunge line ( a rope about 20 feet long attached on one end to the horse and held onto the other end by the equine specialist). The riding around bareback teaches the importance of staying focused, reading the horse's body language, and developing self-confidence. While involved in this activity, the therapist will discuss issues with the student and watch for signs when the student may lose focus with the horse. This usually occurs when the student becomes defensive or dishonest . The student also finds it much easier to talk about sensitive issues while involved in this activity. By being very focused on the horse and activity, he or she is not thinking about different fears, defenses, and games. 

Using horses in group activities is especially powerful in teaching teamwork, problem-solving, leadership, communication, building relationships, character, and confidence. There are an infinite number of things to do using EAP with groups. For instances, the group may observe the horses, which are very social beings, and process group roles and dynamics. The students can then compare their own behaviors and relationships to what they have observed with the horses. Problem-solving activities can be developed such as the group having to get a horse to go through an obstacle course without the horse being touched. This tends to display how the group communicates to solve the problem, how members deal with frustration, who takes leadership roles and whether they work together or individually. When the group is finally successful, they can look at what worked and what did not, how they felt and dealt with those feelings and how they can relate everything to life at home. 

Aspen Ranch also uses EAP working with families in family therapy and in parent workshops where parent education is not only taught, but experienced. As another example, a family may be asked to join hands in a line. The family discusses roles and decides who tends to take control and lead (many times it is the adolescent who is in charge in the family) . The leaders are placed on the ends of the line. The free hands, one on each end of the line, need to saddle a horse and be directed by the family member(s) in the middle. Switching the family roles and having to complete a complex project bring a lot of issues to the surface for discussion. 

Once again, there are an infinite number of activities and possibilities of using horses as an experiential tool for emotional growth. On top of these benefits, the horses create opportunities for students to develop strong character values, such as work ethic, responsibility, respect, and integrity. It is not easy to get up early in the morning, especially when it is still dark and cold, to feed and care for the horses. Students learn that horses have feelings and are not like motorcycles you can hop on and take off running. Horses need to be groomed and cared for physically and emotionally if you want them to listen to you and respect you. Relationships take work, time, respect, and honesty. Of course, another great benefit of horses includes that they are a lot of fun! 

As with any experiential approach, the best way to learn more about it is to experience it. For more information on equine assisted psychotherapy and to arrange for demonstrations, trainings, and seminars, call us. 

Copyright 1996, Woodbury Reports, Inc. (This article may be reproduced without prior approval if the copyright notice and proper publication and author attribution accompanies the copy.)

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