Attempting to move a large, powerful horse from one side of the arena to another can seem intimidating. Add to the challenge no touching or talking and some might call the task impossible. But then imagine completing this challenge: the sense of self-confidence, pride and accomplishment it creates is why some therapists are beginning to use “trusty steeds” in their treatment.Through the combined efforts of a mental health professional, a horse specialist and the horses themselves, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy gives clients an alternative way to process fear and overcome difficult situations.
“It forces you to look at your struggles in a different way,” said Steve Eller, ACU counselor and certified EAP therapist. “In a room, you know what you’re supposed to say. When you get out there in an arena with this wild animal that you have no idea how’s its going to behave, it becomes about creative thinking.”
The EAP program is still in the development stage. Eller began planning its implementation a little more than a year ago, and he is the only EAP-certified ACU counselor in the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. According to its Web site, the EAGALA “works to provide education, standards, innovation, and support to professionals providing services in equine assisted psychotherapy and learning around the world.”
Eller said equine therapy provides clients with experiential opportunities to address larger issues such as anxiety, self-confidence and communication skills. The ACU counselor relates the problem-solving techniques in EAP to real-life circumstances, including parenting.
“Trying to put a kid in bed is like trying to put a horse into a corner it doesn’t want to,” Eller said.
Horses are an ideal animal to assist in these areas because of their ability to mirror human emotion. This mirroring allows clients to view their own situations metaphorically through the horses’ responses.
“When people are real anxious and uptight, that’s how the horses act. When the group calms down and comes together, the horses come together,” Eller said.
Although no riding is involved in the program, the presence of an equine specialist helps ensure the physical safety of the clients. Katie Havis, freshman psychology major from Fort Worth, is the horse specialist for ACU’s horse psychotherapy. Havis has been riding horses for eight years and said she hopes to someday use her horse experience as a professional therapist.
“Horses are kind of therapy for me, so I know that there is a huge benefit for clients going out there,” Havis said. “I really enjoy watching how the clients and the horses interact because it’s different every time.”
Together, Havis and Eller lead groups and individual clients through various activities involving obstacles and other challenges. They leave time at the end of each session to talk with participants about their experience and how it relates to what they might be going through at home. However, a lot of the processing happens long after the session.
“It’s when they go home and think about it that the lightbulb goes on,” Havis said.
Eller said EAP could be used in a broader context as a learning or a team-building tool. Many academic departments have expressed interest in the program as a way to get to know one another and develop group problem-solving skills. The experiential nature of EAP also may provide opportunities for agriculture and psychology majors to learn about therapy through participating in the program.
Eller is trying to incorporate EAP training into the curriculum through a semester course. He would also like to offer several four to six week workshops to develop premarital, marital and parental relationships using EAP.
“It draws an interest because some people that don’t just want to sit in a room may come out and kick the dirt,” Eller said.
For more information on EAP, contact Eller at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sessions are open to all individuals for $10 each Thursday and Friday afternoons at the ACU Rhoden Farm.