Define It, Explore it, Get It
“I still don’t understand what you are talking about. Mindfulness? Equine-Assisted Therapy? Hippo-therapy? Equine-Assisted Learning”? What on Earth does all of that mean?” These were the words spoken to me following an article that was recently published. And it hit, how do people seek and find value in working with horses, when they do not understand the words used to describe the experience and therefore understand the value in humans working with horses for healing and restoration.
By far one of the biggest challenges in this emerging trend of discovering the power of working with horses in a mental health, spiritual and physical healing way, has been figuring out how to communicate to the general public what exactly it is that we do at this ranch with humans and horses and why it is valuable. In an effort to help clarify, hopefully this article will answer questions and provide information that will make sense and in turn cause more people to seek out equine assisted activities for themselves, their loved ones and their teams. It would be a bonus to encourage folks to then actively seek out a daily practice of accessing activities that help bring us into a less anxious and more peaceful place.
EAP and EAL, Hippo-Therapy. What’s the Difference?
Let’s define the abbreviations seen everywhere:
EAP stands for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, or mental health services/counseling. These are services that are performed by licensed mental health professional who has training in integrating the horse into an intentional treatment plan. These include social workers, counselors and psychologists. This is treatment for mental health diagnosis such as PTSD, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, attachment disorders and more.
Hippo-therapy is defined as the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment, especially as a means of improving coordination, balance, and strength. Even autism! Licensed human healthcare professionals must facilitate these services, including occupational therapy, physical therapy and speech therapy. This is treatment for rehabilitation. This is not to be confused with adaptive or therapeutic riding that provides riding lessons for disabled students.
EAL stands for Equine Assisted Learning, or non clinical activities with horses both on the ground and under saddle. Equine-Assisted Learning activities involve partnering with horses for social skills, team building, relationship and leadership work. These activities include coaching, wellness retreats, and leadership/team building workshops for example. Those providing these services also need to be certified and well-trained, with experience being an important part of facilitating activities that hold sacred the work for both horses and humans. One weekend training for example, would not be enough to qualify a provider.
Before signing up for horse therapy or learning, please be sure that you do your research and that the goals of seeking help will be met by the facility that you have contacted. Ask for references, look for experience and certifications.
What’s the Point?
We are all actually partnering with horses to help humans overcome life’s hardships and challenges…those things that leave us paralyzed and frozen, anxious and unable to relax and affect our ability to have healthy relationships, access moments of joy, experience peace and connect to a sense of well-being and safety. We are not giving horses therapy, although the work that we do with the horses absolutely benefits them.
At South Wind Equestrian Center, we are not offering horseback riding for the purposes of physical or occupational therapy for the purposes of healing or strengthening physically or intellectually disabled clients. We offer EAP, or a mental health service, specifically targeted to the brain and nervous system for the purposes of targeting mental disorders. Any riding that is done is for those purposes alone, given that the motion of the horse’s movement is passive regulation and it is helpful when teaching clients self-regulation and targeting areas of the brain that may be “offline”. All of our therapists are licensed and our equine professionals are certified, or are in the process of getting certified, for mental health or EAP.
We also offer Equine Assisted Learning activities, but they are totally separate from our EAP program.
What Does Therapy Mean?
Sometimes it is necessary for humans to seek therapy. Therapy being defined as “the treatment of mental or psychological disorders by psychological means”. In that case, our licensed mental health professionals (LPC, LMSW, PhD) partner with trained and certified equine specialists to provide services to clients who are dealing with the symptoms of past traumas that often include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, attachment disorders, situational stress, loss of a loved one, divorce or anything that causes a disruption in the ability to sleep, concentrate or in general thrive mentally, physically, socially, vocationally and spiritually.
Our services include cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR and many other methods recognized throughout the world for their efficacy in the treatment of psychological disorders. This is “real” therapy that is experiential, meaning that our clients actually experience instant authentic feedback, in a safe setting that provides the opportunity for the creation of new nuero-pathways in their brains. It is not a band-aid, a role-play or a quick fix. Activities taking place during therapy sessions are specifically targeted to therapeutic goals which are set during intake sessions and are re-evaluated throughout the process. Often therapy teams work in tandem with Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals.
The horses add the experiential, or experienced, part of the therapy process, given their ability to clearly respond to requests from clients with their body language and actual reaction to proximity and pressure the client is putting on the horse in order to communicate intention. Given that the horses are working at liberty (they do not have on a halter or rope) in a 50’ circular pen, they have all of their choices available and can choose to walk away and ignore clients, roll, sleep, eat, resist or cooperate. When these powerful and gentle prey animals are given choices, their reactions are authentic and not forced. They are able to engage in connected relationships based on trust, and not fear, and they can clearly demonstrate, without manipulation of any kind, whether the human is actually living in the present moment or their minds are wandering into worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, (often described as swirling thoughts, difficulty in focusing or concentrating, sadness, helplessness or a heightened sense of anxiety).
Experiencing what it actually feels like inside our bodies to be present, teaches the brain that this is a better and safer place to be. Our clients learn to recognize when they have stopped being present when they are away from the horses, and purposely re-engage with what is going on around them in their lives. The pure joy of working with a horse in the moment and having them authentically and willingly agree to walk with us without a rope, engage in activities and obviously feel safe and connected provides the opportunity to “practice” connection and safe attachment.
Now, what does it mean when trauma is introduced into this topic? Essentially when “bad” things (car accident, hospitalization, unexpected death, divorce, war, abuse) happen our brains and nervous systems react – fight, flight or freeze. Cortisol and adrenaline flow to provide stamina to survive the stressful situation, enable us to run away or go into a state of disassociation. We actually need our brains to do this in order to keep us alive and safe. However, there are times when the human brain has to adapt to repeated perceived or real threats to our lives and/or well-being and in order to keep us “safe”, we develop maladaptive, or unhealthy, coping mechanisms. These include disassociation (checking out), quietly meeting everyone’s needs (staying under the radar), aggression (anger, rage), or inappropriate overreaction (fear/flight) and can damage relationships.
In addition, repeated threats and traumas cause a loss in the ability to appropriately react to certain stimulus, (sounds, smells, people, situations, emotions) and “triggers” develop that set into motion actions and out of control emotions. These triggers cause inappropriate and uncontrolled reactions to perceived and real threats and damage relationships, affect the ability to work and affect quality of life. These include dysregulation in terms of emotional outbursts and an inability to control emotions and thoughts, disassociation, nightmares/flashbacks and repeated unhealthy behaviors that numb us to experiencing sadness, loss, anger, fear and helplessness (drinking, drugs, self-harm, promiscuity etc.).
At the time we are experiencing trauma or stress, these reactions may be appropriate, but over time without intervention, they can inhibit and even ambush our ability to create sustained healthy connected relationships and keep our nervous systems in a constant fight/flight/freeze hyper-vigilant state. These old and well-used coping mechanisms, often from past relationships or events, become default mechanisms and without even realizing what is happening, the subconscious mind take over and moves the mind and body into a space that changes the ability to openly and honestly interact with others. This can cause us to struggle with creating and sustaining relationships with our peers, partners, children and even strangers and hold down a job or sleep. Often depression and a feeling of isolation, helplessness, hopelessness and being “stuck” develop and seem insurmountable. In situations where abuse continues, clients tend to notice panic attacks, loss of memory, increased heart rate and blood pressure, insomnia, stomach pain and headaches.
The good news is that the brain is incredibly malleable. It can heal and learn better coping mechanisms and learn appropriate responses to stimulus. With help from a qualified licensed therapist, the brain of the client can create new nuero-pathways that lead to healthier and more appropriate responses to stimulus in our environment, aid in creating and sustaining healthy relationships, re-connect to intuition and creativity and even develop the ability to allow our nervous systems to rest and relax. This re-connection to self has been described as a light coming on and a sense of weight being lifted. The symptoms of anxiety and depression gradually lessen and eventually can disappear altogether.
The ability to live in the moment, recognize when triggers are causing a physical sensation and emotional reaction, then learning regulation, is vital to creating those new pathways. The horses are necessary for this process because they instantly react to humans living in the moment, being authentic and recognizing current emotion. Emotions do not cause them to fear or reject us. It is when emotions are ignored or pushed aside, while pretending to be okay, that we do not feel safe to them and they will ignore or resist our requests to interact (similar to a wolf in sheep’s clothing).
Emotions and feelings are part of the makeup of the human nervous system, and so learning how to recognize what these sensations are communicating, is a skill that humans must have in order to learn the ability to self-regulate and appropriately respond to the stimulus. Slowing down and recognizing what is happening is the first step, responding if needed, and then going back to a state of calm is the goal. Without achieving this state of calm it is almost impossible to relationally connect to other humans, think clearly and make decisions.
Mindfulness Relating to Healing
Mindfulness is defined as actively seeking an awareness of the present moment and acknowledging physical sensations, current feelings and emotions, as opposed to swirling thoughts. By bringing this real-time awareness into healing models, our facilitators and teams actively teach practices that can help clients achieve this state outside the ranch and therapy office. This in turn teaches what we call regulation, or the ability to recognize when the state of mind is out of control thoughts, based on information that may or may not be true versus living in the moment and trusting our intuition and real time nervous system reaction to events or people.
Humans were designed to recognize and take into consideration what instincts/intuition/gut is communicating, and not disregard and actively push those reactions aside and ignore them. It is in the ability to make decisions based both on our initial instinctual reaction plus our years of education and life wisdom, that goals are accomplished and relationships are grown and cultivated. Both must occur for ultimate life satisfaction, a sense of purpose and moments of joy. We refer to that as full brain integration.
The work that is done with the horses here at our ranch north of Austin, Texas promotes healing because it is quiet and safe. This is crucial to teach clients how to live in the present moment and treat the root of the symptoms that brought them to us. Only when the brain perceives safety can it process through trauma. These practices are based on:
- Years of research on the effect of trauma on the brain and nervous systems
- Continuing efforts to study how trauma is physically stored in our bodies at a cellular level
- The physiological affect horses have on us when we are close to them
- Hours of time spent in therapeutic relationships with clients that clearly demonstrate that horses authentically react to human’s vibe/energy and their intention and focus, as well as communicating when humans are genuine in their response and when they are not. (We have been providing equine assisted mental health services since 2015).
This is absolutely necessary for true healing to occur and includes purposely educating brains and nervous systems to experience true connection in relationship and teach that seeking relationship for safety, instead of checking out, escaping and isolating through means such as drinking or drugs, is better for relationships and overall health and well-being. Choose equine therapy first, not as a last resort.
At South Wind Equestrian Center there are currently three therapy teams. Our clients are children and adults. Contact Kelly for more information or go to our web site: https://southwindequestrian.com/services/horse-therapy-eap/