Horses supporting Humans
Author: Jessica Siles
Equine Assisted Social Work Sessions are a professional, evidence based and empowering approach to counseling, psychotherapy, and mental health that supports clients of all ages in addressing therapeutic or life goals, with horses or animals as assistants and teachers in this process. I was drawn to this modality after working in the disability and child protection sector for over 13 yrs. Over the course of this time, it became apparent to me that room based therapies were not suited to every participant and that we were not able to reach and connect with a large proportion of our community because of this. With this in mind, I set out to find an approach and modality that felt right for me as a practitioner and that would connect with our community. I stumbled across Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Social Work Sessions and after reading journal articles about the positive outcomes for those who had experienced trauma, rehabilitation in detention centres and war veterans and decided that this is what I had been searching for. With this goal in mind, I went on to train with the Equine Psychotherapy Institute based here in Australia.
I have found over the years that there is some confusion as to what Equine Assisted Social Work sessions are and always find it helpful to highlight what it is not. Whilst many horse related activities can have positive outcomes they are not Equine Assisted Social Work sessions. This can include but is not limited to Horsemanship classes or lessons even if facilitated by a mental health practitioner, therapeutic massage and treatment of horses, horse riding lessons and hippotherapy.
Equine Assisted Social Work sessions are suited to children five years and older, adults and young people and do not require that participants have previous horse or animal experience. Sessions can focus on the following areas:
- Children with diagnoses including Autism Spectrum Disorder or ADHD
- Children and Adults with a disability or mental health diagnosis
- Support for neurodivergent adults and children.
- Trauma and PTSD
- Grief and loss
- Anxiety and or Depression
- Social and life skill development
- School groups
- Workplace groups/teams
- Group Sessions
Sessions occur in a paddock and safety guidelines are shared to ensure the safety of all participants including the horses and animals. Each session begins with a grounding and mindfulness exercises to assist participants in utilising their awareness. Equine Assisted Social Work sessions can provide experiential learning via mindful, relational experiences with the horses and each other including herd meets, liberty meets, mounted or ridden sessions, grooming and leading. Some of these experiences may also include projective experiences where participants can create a feeling or experience they wish to explore with objects such as rocks, rope, witch’s hats poles and tyres and then explore it with a horse.
These experiments are experiential and relational meaning that they encourage new neural pathways to develop. These relational experiences are always tailored to meet the needs and goals of the participants and are co-created so that participants are in control of their sessions and can set boundaries and limits when required. We ensure all of our sessions are trauma-informed and client centred meaning that it is vital that all participants have the ability to set limits, boundaries and share when something is or isn’t working for them. What drew me to this modality was that facilitators model healthy and safe relationships with our animal and equine teams which also means that the animals are also afforded choice, control and an ability share how they feel and set limits.
The Equine Psychotherapy Institute has created a model and theory of change that incorporates many evidence-based theories and practices. Some of these include:
- Gestalt Therapy
- Buddhist Psychotherapy
- Mindfulness Psychotherapy
- Somatic Experiencing and Neuroscience based Trauma Practice
- Trauma Informed Practice
- Narrative Therapy
- Play Therapy
- Strengths Based Therapy
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Of course, each practitioner brings their own therapeutic tool kit to the foundational model and theories as well as their own horsemanship skills and equine/animal team.
Each session is created around this model with the horses or animals at the center and meaningful and authentic relationship modeled throughout. Horses are fantastic role models for healthy functioning, learning and living. Horses model and can teach us about the following ways of being:
- Being present, in the moment and living in the here and now.
- Being in the breath and the body.
- Being congruent and authentic.
- Using feelings as information.
- Confirmation/ no judgement.
- Belonging and herd life.
- Life is a process of living – there are no mistakes.
- Thoughts create behaviours
Animals, and specifically horses, can offer humans so much more than service but can teach us, challenge us and support us, this work is inspiring and challenges me every day to learn and grow as a human.
In the words of one of our wonderful young participants “equine assisted therapy is when the horses help me learn about myself while I look after and learn about them”.