A growing number of therapists are swapping consultation rooms for corrals and using horses to heal people with mental health conditions.
Equine psychotherapists are qualified mental health practitioners trained to facilitate sessions with clients and horses.
Equine therapy is based on the premise that horses help people express themselves more openly and honestly. Therapists also guide clients to interact in different ways with horses to help them discover more positive ways to relate to people.
”Horses offer authentic responses, especially for people hurt in human relationships,” said Meggin Kirby, psychotherapist and founder of Equine Psychotherapy Australia (EPA). ”I can work without horses, but it can take a lot longer.’
Horses are herd animals so they are inherently social. They are also prey animals that react quickly to perceived threats, to changes in their environment, and even to changes in people’s attitudes. This means horses give immediate feedback when clients approach them in different ways.
Equine psychotherapy practitioners need to own healthy horses that are used to ”being listened to”, Ms Kirby said. Trail-ride horses and work horses that are not used ”to two-way communication can shut down and may not respond authentically”.
The treatment begins with clients communicating with horses in an enclosure on the ground, but follow-up sessions may advance to horseback.
”Sian”, 47, came to equine psychotherapy after trying several other types of treatment to deal with the aftermath of drug and alcohol addiction. Sian said her first psychotherapy session with a horse revealed the grief she had been ignoring since adolescence.
”Somehow the presence of the horse taps you into [issues],” Sian said. ”The power of the horses is that they show you how to connect with your feelings because you notice you have a truer relationship with them when you do.”
Sian said the therapy helped her open up because the horses ”didn’t try to interpret my experience or tell me what to do. They allowed me to express my grief without telling a story.”
The wordless, physical nature of communicating with a horse also enables clients to hear the voices in their own heads more clearly.
”We are so verbal, but 90 plus per cent of our communications are non-verbal. People look to words for truth and get totally sidetracked and derailed,” Ms Kirby said.