Equine Facilitated Learning Therapy: Animals as teachers and guides
by Mary Berkery
I think I could turn and live with animals,
they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long….
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, or to his kind that lived thousands of years ago
In recent years there has been a growing interest in the positive impact of spending time in nature. Evidence shows that natural environments can help relieve symptoms of both physical and psychological distress. Horses, as part of that nature, have an uncanny ability to assist people in reconnecting to their essence. See for example Thaisen (2015). It has been shown scientifically that just being around horses has positive affects effects on blood pressure, personal heart rate, increased beta-endorphin levels, decreased stress levels, reduced feelings of anger, tension and anxiety.
The human body has specific responses to stress. Horses help humans decrease or reverse the body’s physiological and psychological reactions to stress in various ways. Horses are being incorporated into therapy for people with diagnosed disorders such as PTSD, victims of domestic abuse, feeling intimidated, children with ADHD, and more. Studies show these equine therapy offerings are successful because horses help humans relax, to state it simply. Long term therapy with horses helps humans to better cope as well as assist in developing skills to minimize stress responses.
(Beetz et al., 2011).
An article in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology further suggests why this may be so (Rothe et al., 2005). However, on an informal level, even Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a human”.
What is Equine Facilitated Learning Therapy?
Imagine attending a coach or therapist to talk through an issue and then doing that with horses present. Equine Facilitated Learning Therapy (EFLT) is a system of personal development and support that works with horses as the co-facilitators. EFLT sessions are offered with an EFLT facilitator, with specific exercises and intentions set. No horse riding skills are necessary as all activities and exercises are on the ground in a safe environment. A love or even an awe or some fear of these beautiful animals can help.
Horses are instinctive, non-judgmental, multi-dimensional beings that have not lost touch with the essence of present moment awareness. They are able to read a person immediately.
Being herding and prey animals, they rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger. They can also hear the human heartbeat from up to four feet away and so have an uncanny ability to assess a person, and feed back what they see and feel.
Equine Therapy can achieve a much quicker, in the moment, direct way of working than working only with a human coach, therapist or consultant. One client said of the work:
I was amazed how a horse could reflect to me a core issue. I could see from one encounter with her, how I hide my real power and avoid showing the depth of my heart behind stories I tell myself and others. I felt defences penetrated and melting in her loving non-judgemental gaze. In the personal development work I have done prior to this, nothing has ever got to me in such a ‘lived-in’, present moment, experience.
Some of the benefits of Equine Facilitated Learning Therapy can be:
- Setting clear boundaries, learning to say no (or yes) without shame
- Developing self compassion and forgiveness
- Processing trauma
- Experiencing unconditional self-acceptance
- Coming into present moment experience and awareness
- Moving from mind to heart connection
- Becoming self-confident
- Discovering techniques in dealing with stressful situations
- Feeling more connected to your body as a guide to feelings Helping to relax and reduce anxiety.
Horses have always been part of my life from a very young age and I was riding from the age of five. When I lived, and was in business in Dublin, I would regularly go to the countryside to just be with beautiful equines. I would come home feeling more relaxed, less speedy in my mind, more creative and calm in making business decisions. Their pure non- judgmental essence and being would bring me back to my deep self and present moment awareness.
While living in Colorado, I was introduced to a new concept of horsemanship by two psychotherapists, Diane Kennedy and Craig Falkman of Horse Medicine Boulder. They worked with horses as teachers and guides in their therapy practice. I was going through some personal stress in my new life in Colorado, and with a lifelong love of horses, I decided to book some sessions of Equine Facilitated Therapy. Instead of bringing me to a private room to talk with them, Craig and Diane brought me to an arena with horses. They asked me some questions and then invited me to choose a horse. I was amazed what it uncovered. Issues from my childhood were brought to the surface, not just as memories but with the associated feelings too. I was then introduced to a book by Linda Kovanhov (2007), The Tao of Equus: A Woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation Through the Way of the Horse. This book was also pivotal in my journey to looking at horses as teachers, guides and therapists. These transformative experiences eventually inspired me to leave my work and city life and to study and practice this form of therapy.
Horse body says
To busy human mind.
Breath into smiling belly,
Graze on the now,
No world to save
Equine Facilitated Therapy session
A young boy, aged 13, came to me wanting to do this work with horses, as he did not wish to go to a regular counsellor and had some school peer pressure issues he was struggling with. In the first session I did a boundary exercise with him with horses, which is an exercise I do in some circumstances to commence the work. I then asked him to choose a horse and practice this exercise with his equine choice. This activity in general assists people, with the help of the horse, to become aware of their and the horse’s boundaries. He took to the work easily, walking slowing towards the pony of his choice and not rushing to touch her or be close to her, per the guidelines. At one point he stood about three to four feet away and waited for what seemed like 15 minutes. I could see that both he and horse had a connection and said nothing. With that, the horse (who is usually very cautious with strangers) walked up to him and smelt his hand.
I asked him what he learnt in the session and was so moved when he said he learnt about respect. He realised, he said, that it is ok to take your time making contact and it is ok to say no. I asked him what he got by standing and looking at this horse from a distance. He realised, he said, that he had time to see how beautiful she was and how sensitive she was. I told him that the horse he chose had trust issues and would only allow a human to come close when she feels seen and allowed the space she needs. I asked him how he felt that she trusted him. I asked him think about what he did to create that. He said he felt so special and again referred to feeling such respect for her wish to keep him at a distance. We then spoke about the importance of saying no if you do not want to do something, as well accepting no from friends with the same respect.
Later, I heard from his mum that he just loved the session and had spent the evening writing in his diary about it. I could not help but think in this age of instant results with digital contact, instant gratification and saying yes to look cool, that this animal demonstrated another way of taking time, being true and tuning into the nuances of connection, trust and true intimacy. I once again, as I do so often in sessions, felt so honoured and blessed to hold such a space for horse and humans and for what they can give and receive from each other in such a healing and revealing way.
All the sessions and exercises are either in a barn, a field or an arena with horses present. This can facilitate clients to become more grounded in their bodies and for some, the natural environment can be less intimidating than a therapy room.
This return to nature and to animals as teachers is a unique and new approach to personal development. It has proven to be an exciting new force in personal awareness, conscious empowerment, leadership skills, teamwork and compassionate action in today’s speeded-up, rational minded, competitive and driven climate. The nature-based therapeutic work is an optional modality for anyone who wishes to live life deeply with integrity, authentic power, grace, intuition and grounded awareness.
Equine Facilitated Learning Therapy programs are suitable for young adults, individuals, couples, professional and family groups, and can be in the form of
– One to one sessions for individuals or couples
– Day workshops for groups
– Themed weekend residential retreats.
Mary Berkery is internationally respected in the field of Equine Facilitated Learning Therapy. She is an author, a personal development group facilitator and an accredited life and business coach, and works in Ireland and internationally. She lives in Westport, Co. Mayo. www.maryberkery.com e: firstname.lastname@example.org
Beetz, A., Kotrschal, K., Uvnas-Moberg, K., & Julius, H. (2011). Basic neurobiological and psychological mechanisms underlying therapeutic effects of Equine Assisted Activities (EAA/T) HHRF Grant 2011 – Public Report. HHRF Grant 2011 – Public Report, 1-14. Retrieved 9 September 2019 from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/58de718e15d5db3db2b90fe4/t/59dc15fccd0f6 8a1402e1ab7/1507595773125/HHRF_grant_final_report_public_version_June_2012_ Basic_Neurobiological_Psychological.pdf
Berkery, M. (2016). Horse body. In On Earth. Westport, Ireland: Covey Publishing.
Kohanov L. (2007). The Tao of Equus: A woman’s Journey of Healing and Transformation Through the Way of the horse. Novato California: New World Library.
Rothe, E.Q., Vega, B. J., Torres, R. M., Soler, S. M. C., & Pazos, R. M. M. (2005). From kids and horses: Equine facilitated psychotherapy for children. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 5, 373–383.
Thaisen, J. (2015, June 23). Horses that heal: How equine therapy is helping people find peace of mind. The Guardian. Retrieved 9 September 2019 from https:// www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/23/equine-therapy-horses-medical- treatment?CMP=soc_567
Walsh, J. with McGroarty, B. (2019). Prescribing Nature. Retrieved from Global Wellness Summit website: https://www.globalwellnesssummit.com/2019-global-wellness- trends/prescribing-nature
Whitman W. (1855/2006) I wish I could turn and live with animals. In Song of myself. United States: Digireads Publishing.