Coming to a barn instead of a therapist’s office is also a plus for some people. No one needs to know they’re in therapy since they could simply be going for a ride. “For a lot of people who come from a clinical setting, when you get into a barn, it’s very normalizing,” says Michael Kaufmann, director of education for the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) and founding board member of the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA). “That can be a mental shift that allows you to feel differently, act differently, think differently.”
The horse also gives patients something else to focus on while they carry on a conversation. Many parents know that the best time to talk to a child is when you’re riding in a car. “This takes advantage of that. It takes the intensity out of it and makes it a lot more relaxed,” says Lewis.
A Horse is a Horse, of Course
Of course the main attraction in this type of therapy is the horse. But the horse is more than just a docile bystander in the process. “The horse isn’t just a prop,” says Kaufmann. “Horses are truly participants. They’re looking for interaction and in tune with what’s going on.”
Horses are very sensitive to body language and can point out inconsistencies between our verbal and nonverbal communication, explains Vidrine. Because of this, patients need to be clear in communicating with them. For people who have trouble with assertiveness or decision-making, directing a horse can be valuable practice for what they need to do in their lives.
But communication doesn’t have to be through words. Many times children don’t have language sophisticated enough to express what they’re feeling, says Boo McDaniel, M.Ed., a NARHA certified master instructor, co-founder of EFMHA and executive director of Horse Power in Temple, N.H. By interacting with the horse in a way that isn’t self-conscious, they can get deeper into the therapeutic interaction, she says. For instance, if a child learns how to make the horse stop, that can be used as an opportunity to explore how to tell a person to stop doing something, too.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
A lot of equine facilitated psychotherapy centers around activity, such as grooming or riding. This can be very important for certain conditions. For instance, for ADHD, Lewis said that moving from one activity to the next helps keep the person’s attention. For someone who is depressed, the activity associated with the process can be healing. “Physically moving is hard to do if you’re depressed, but it helps,” says Lewis. “The physical act of moving and doing something different can help move people through depression.”
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