Getting In The Arena With Equine-Assisted Therapy

Around since about the 1990s, equine-assisted therapy is a form of psychotherapy where individuals are treated for various issues in and around an equestrian facility. In essence, the horse acts as a cofacilitator or a tool in getting to the root of any issues that the client is dealing with.

It’s pretty amazing stuff.

I had the chance to get in an arena with Debbie Okrina, LCSW, Certified Daring Way™ Facilitor, and Daring Way™ Senior Faculty member, as well as JP McIntosh of McIntosh Ranch — and, of course, their equine friend, Lexie. I was nervous at first – I have no experience with horses whatsoever, and walking around a small space with a giant beast was at first intimidating – but after about an hour attempting to create a relationship with Lexie, I learned more about myself and how I relate to people in my own life than I likely would have any other way. It was incredible.

After my session, I had the opportunity and sit down with Debbie to learn more about equine-assisted therapy, and why it works.

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TDW: Why horses? Why not dogs, or some other animal?

Debbie: In our culture, horses have a place of honor. We grow up watching them in movies, TV and commercial. We read books and hear songs about them. And this goes way back – apparently, the first documented writing about horses was in the third millennium BC, where the slate tablets of Elam referred to horses and their nobility. They’re symbols of power, grace, beauty, nobility, strength and freedom. Partly because of this history, people are just attracted to horses. They want to see them, be near them and spend time with them.

Also, unlike dogs, which are ultimately, predators, horses are one of the most powerful prey animals. They use their sense to maintain their surroundings for survival, and so they have a highly developed ability to react to a subtle change in our bodies or behavior. In other words, horses require us to show up and be seen. Also, for horses, incongruency is linked to predator behavior – they can feel through our armor. In order to gain trust and connect with them, the armor has to come down.

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TDW: So, how does a therapy session work?

Debbie: In equine therapy, we spend time with horses – observing them, being present with them, and exploring relationships with them.

In a healthy relationship, each partner is 100% in control of themselves. In a therapy session, clients learn to control themselves, while creating a relationship with the horse, through self-regulation. Horses react in the moment to what’s going on inside of the human in the arena with them. Horses read emotions as energy and communication. Noticing emotions that are rising, giving yourself permission to feel, breathing, and taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions or responses helps settle the horse. And strategies for reckoning with emotion can be used, and unlike most humans, horses will change immediately in response.

 

In equine therapy, horses read emotions. Taking responsibility for your reactions helps settle the horse.

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TDW: I definitely saw that in the arena with Lexie – it was astounding how nervous we were around each other when I first entered, but by the end, after I’d spent time working on my own emotions (thanks to your and JP’s prompts), our relationship felt almost playful! I learned so much about how I place expectations about my relationships with people in my life on them, instead of taking care of myself. I’m still a bit amazed.

Debbie: Right! It’s funny – I think people often discount powerful interactions that they have with horses. I mean, while horses hold a place of glory in society, we’ve also been given many messages about animals being dumb, and we’ve been taught to objectify them. For example, many people view horses as an object to ride, and the process for learning how to ride a horse is similar to riding a motorcycle. As a result, when someone goes through an equine-assisted therapy session, they’re often deeply moved by the connection they end up feeling with the horse. But sometimes they have trouble believing it actually happened!

TDW: That was definitely the case with me – it felt almost like magic!

Debbie: I’ve heard that before!

TDW:  And you incorporate your learnings from your Daring Way certification in your therapy sessions — how does that work?

Debbie: Equine therapy and The Daring Way work wonderfully together. The most obvious connection is the arena metaphor. In equine therapy the client literally walks into the arena. What are the critics saying? Is there a support section? It’s easy for clients to observe that the more they focus on the critics and stay in their head, the less the horse is interested in connecting with them. I think people can probably imagine how vulnerability, trust, and boundaries are a big part of doing work with horses. Those and other Daring Way and Rising Strong themes come up over and over. I’ve also found that exploring “stormy first drafts,” or SFDs — the stories we tell ourselves when we’re in the middle of a painful moment — is really helpful. Most clients come with SFDs about horses and/or expectations of what a relationship with a horse will be like. Often these SFDs come from childhood experiences, stories they’ve heard, or media messages. It is not unusual for people to bring some of their shame-related SFDs about worthiness and belonging into the arena. When they are able to let down their shields and get out of their head, they receive a validating experience of deep connection with the horse. They get to write and live a brave new story in the moment.

I’ve talked to a quite a few Certified Daring Way™ Facilitators around the country who are incorporating horses into their work and others who are interested in doing so. I think we are at the beginning of learning just how powerful this pairing is going to be. I encourage people who are interested in learning more to reach out so that we can be connected and learn from each other. Brené talks about moving what we learn from our heads to our hearts through our hands. I believe horses have an amazing ability to start in our hearts and our bodies and then move into our heads (sometimes days later). And therein lies what some people call the magic. This is why The Daring Way and horses go so well together. Fundamentally both are all about connection.

TDW: Do you have any examples of success stories using equine-assisted therapy with clients?

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Debbie: I have had so many experiences over the years, it’s hard to narrow it down to a few stories. Much of the time, it’s kind of like the experience you had – the horse doesn’t seem to do a lot, and then suddenly, what they do is phenomenal. That’s one of the reasons I wanted you to come experience it, since so much of it is so hard to put into words.

However, I can tell you I used to have powerful one-time sessions when I took a horse to our psych hospital. Patients would come spend about 15 minutes in the round pen with me and a horse. There, often they would tell me about trauma they had not yet revealed to anyone. Even people with psychosis were more grounded and able to tell me a more coherent history of their experiences.

I’ve had abuse survivors over the years who struggled to set boundaries or keep themselves safe at first, and they would allow the horses to step on them and bite them. But once they learned to set boundaries with the horses in kind but firm ways, they usually become empowered to set boundaries with humans in their lives.

I’ve even used horses a lot in clinical supervision. Horses can really help new therapists who want to have all the answers, and sometimes spend their time with clients in their heads thinking about what to say next and what techniques to use, to the point where they are completely disconnected from the client. Horses will let you know the minute you disconnect from them, and get stuck in your head. They can help therapists learn to stay present with clients, which is just as important as knowing what to do or say next. Horses are amazing clinical supervisors.

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TDW: That’s so cool. So what about you? How has working with the horses impacted your life?

Debbie: For eight years, I took care of a herd of up to 20 horses: feeding them daily, moving them from pasture to pasture, nursing them when they were sick or wounded, doing therapy and supervision with them, and loading one of them in a trailer twice a week, to take him or her to our psychiatric hospital to do therapy. Our herd included stallions, mares and babies of all ages. I developed relationships with each of those horses. They didn’t care how many degrees I had, if I was overweight, how much debt I had, if I wore makeup or what I thought about the presidential election. I had to show up and be seen in each interaction with them. I needed their cooperation to keep us all safe. I had to be “lead mare.” I couldn’t call, text or email them, and they don’t speak English, so all my armor had to come down with them and they let me know right away if I picked it back up. I have found those relationships and what they gave me different from other parts of my life – not because they’re animals, but because we were physically present with each other always.

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Thanks so much to Debbie for sharing her insight into equine-assisted therapy, and to Debbie and JP for letting me hang out with the magical horse, Lexie!

 

Debbie Okrina is one of the hundreds of certified wholehearted practitioners in our Daring Way™ Community, and a Daring Way™ Senior Faculty Member. To contact her or find another helping professional, click here.

 

 

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