“The sights, the smells, the sounds of the horse farm have tremendous power,” says Vidrine. “You don’t necessarily have to ride the horse to have tremendous benefit.”
Of course sometimes patients do ride and the rhythm can be relaxing. “It helps people connect with parts of themselves that they haven’t been able to get in touch with,” says Lewis. Sometimes she is able to challenge patients by testing where their frustration level is and then talking about it. It’s different from an office setting because by the time they get to the office they’re removed from the problem, but at the farm they can deal with the situation in the moment, she says.
Grooming is another activity that can be healing. “There’s a rhythm to brushing, a rhythm to the horse’s breathing,” says Vidrine. “It’s sensory input. It feels like we’re rechoreographing neural pathways.”
Grooming is also good for children with ADHD because they’re very impulsive, and planning the order in which they have to do things is useful, said Lewis. “When you do something and you succeed, there’s a level of confidence in you that you own,” she says. “You can transfer that to the real world.”
Almost all of these activities involve touching the horse, one of the most powerful aspects of equine facilitated psychotherapy. “It is usually less threatening for folks to develop an attachment with an animal than with a person, particularly if they’ve been victimized,” says Vidrine. “We hope that that attachment will eventually generalize to humans.” This is particularly true with children with autism, who have trouble forming attachments. It’s easier for them to talk to, be interested in, and want to touch an animal, she says.
“For kids or people who haven’t been touched appropriately, you can wrap your arms around a horse. It’s hard for a therapist to do that,” says Lewis. “It’s something that in an office, it’s really hard to provide.”
It’s hard to imagine how stroking and petting a horse wouldn’t be good for just about everyone. But to some people it can be more than that. “The horse may be the first friend some of these people have had,” says Lewis.
What to Look For
If you’re looking for an equine facilitated psychotherapy program, Vidrine has these words of advice:
Look for a NARHA member center. NARHA can be reached at 1-800-369-RIDE or www.narha.org.
Make sure the person doing the therapy is legitimately practicing psychotherapy, has at least an M.S., and is credentialed in your state.
Make sure the therapist is extremely familiar with horses and has a lot of expertise or is working with someone who does, preferably a NARHA certified instructor.
Check to see if the horses seem happy and well cared for, and that the farm has adequate green pastures.
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Tags: impulsive, psychotherapy, therapist