Contributed by: Amy Gregor, LCSW
It is no secret that the team here at Queen City Counseling & Consulting (QCCC) believes in the healing power of animals. We are excited to say that over the past several months we have continued to expand our knowledge in the therapeutic benefits of animals outside of just Bean and Callie, our therapy dogs, as well as those of nature and the outdoors. As its popularity and demand continue to grow many of you have heard of Equine Therapy and Wilderness Therapy but what are they exactly? How does hanging with a horse or taking a walk-in nature actually help with my mental health? Our newest blog posts will examine just that! Check out more about the benefits of equine therapy below:
QCCC has had the pleasure of partnering with Mending Strides Ranch, a trauma focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) barn right here in Mint Hill. (https://www.mendingstridesranch.com/). What is this exactly? Equine Assisted Psychotherapy focuses on mental health, substance use, trauma, cognitive issues, and a variety of other diagnoses. While still incorporating talk therapy, there are a variety of different exercises and techniques that can be used through the interactions with the horse that requires its participants to use all their senses to assist in identifying and processing emotional struggles. Horses, much like humans, are very emotional animals and have similar roles and dynamics of that of a family structure. Interacting with the horses in session often mirrors similar dynamics that play out in our day to day lives providing us with different perspective than what we may have gotten in a therapy office. Through our own personal experiences with the ranch and its amazing horses, as well as hearing the incredible stories from the staff, we can confidently say that Equine Therapy greatly contributes to the world of mental health. But what exactly are the benefits?
Benefits of Equine Therapy:
- Increased Trust: the first step to treatment is building trust with the horse and the therapist, and in turn through your work together – trusting yourself.
- Reduced Anxiety: In addition to being gentle giants who do not pass judgement or blame, horses are excellent readers of emotion. They will pick up on fear and anxiety. To communicate effectively and work with the horse it can teach us to better control our anxiety and fear.
- Decreased feelings of depression and isolation: There is research behind interaction with animals and the “feel good” hormones it produces
- Increased self-esteem and self-acceptance: Equine Assisted Therapy allows an environment to try new things and new ways to challenge yourself in a non-competitive non-judgmental environment. As the relationship and the successes of interacting with the horse grow – so does confidence and self acceptance.
- Better problem-solving skills and increased impulse control: Working with horses encourages to think outside the box, read not only the horses but ourselves and inquire what is contributing to interaction between the two. We must pause and assess rather than react.
- Improved communication and social skills, including non-verbal communication: Horses do not speak but are excellent communicators and learning to understand their behavior and how we attempt to communicate with the horse can help us understand how our behavior and communication impacts others.
- Better understanding of healthy boundaries and assertiveness: Horses have a unique way of setting their boundaries and pushing yours. EAP assists in identifying some maladaptive patterns of behavior in relationships and how effective we are at communicating boundaries and how quickly we may be at crossing or dropping them.
- Increased mindfulness: EAP requires the use of all senses and awareness of surroundings not only ourselves but the horse and the environment.
But don’t take our word for it. Hear it straight from the “horse’s mouth” as you hear from Maria Hogge, Founder, CEO, and Equine Specialist of Mending Strides Ranch, interviewed by Amy Gregor recently:
QCCC: What got you interested or started in Equine Therapy?
Maria: I saw a news clip about a Vietnam Veteran POW who had found healing from his PTSD through a program using horses. For days, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I began to wonder if I could help people in a similar way to the horse professional who had helped him. I gathered the nerve up to contact the Veteran and the conversation led me going for my certification as an Equine specialist. What do you feel is one major thing that clients can get from Equine therapy that you can’t get or accomplish in a typical therapy session. The advantage of equine therapy is the experiential piece and the opportunity it affords clients to practice skills with a living, relational creature. Horses are non-judgmental beings, they do not care about age, color, weight etc. but only how someone shows up (energy, mood, the way they treat them). The immediate response from a horse affords the client the opportunity to observe how they affect others and to then make changes and see the effects of the changes. Horse’s are incredibly sensitive and observant. If a client attends a session and is feeling anxious/agitated a horse might choose to keep walking away from the client. They will not understand the reason for the client’s anxiety, but being prey animals, they will avoid fearful situations. A client might have to practice mindfulness skills in order to regulate so that the horse feels comfortable (safe) interacting with the client. For the therapist, this opens the door to conversations about relationship and communication skills, for example.
QCCC: What is one of your favorite exercises or skills you like to incorporate into your equine therapy sessions?
Maria: One of my favorite exercises is Mindful Grooming in which the clients are asked to groom a horse while being fully present in the moment. They are asked to begin with a few deep breaths and then as they are grooming to run through their senses and notice what they are seeing, feeling or touching, hearing, smelling, tasting or to simply swallow. They are also asked to observe the horses senses, what do they appear to be looking at, hearing, how are they responding (feeling) towards the particular tools or the methods the clients are using the tools? If clients would like to take a picture with a horse, we invite them to use it during the week to remember the feeling of being fully present in the moment, not worrying about the past or future.
QCCC: What is one of your most memorable experiences from one of your sessions working together with horses and clients?
Maria: I will always remember the day I witnessed a young woman have a lightbulb moment when she discovered her voice and gave herself permission to use it. All because a horse refused the simple request to walk. We were able to coach the client in making a fair request in a fair way and to allow the horse to feel how she needed to feel and that the client was not responsible for the horse’s feelings. We discussed that in relationships, there will always be times we have to make requests of another and that one persons needs are not superior to another. She came to understand the concept that if something isn’t good for one person in a relationship, sooner or later it isn’t good for either.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a powerful adjunctive therapeutic service that can further enhance one’s therapy goals. We encourage you to look into programs in your area that offer these services!