Equine Assisted Psychotherapy – “How does that work?”

By Shawn Rodrigues - 02/13/2019


“What do you do?” The dreaded question that occurs when meeting people in new social circles. How do I explain in words that which needs to be experienced? It has taken me over a decade to perfect my “elevator speech” into a concise, understandable sentence that leaves people both knowing and wondering at the same time. After my answer: “I do Equine Assisted Psychotherapy” the question that follows 99% of the time is “How does that work?” My answer: “The horses provide a canvas on which the client can project their experience, story, or reality. We step back and provide a safe space for this to unfold without judgment or pressure.” And then the elevator doors open and I want to step out. However, people often follow with many other questions. If you choose to read on I hope that I answer some of the questions you might have.

Many people know that horses move away from pressure. What they do not realize is that the horse learns not from the application of pressure but when that pressure is released. Anyone who has gone to therapy knows there is a certain amount of pressure that is experienced when stepping into a therapist’s office. The pressure may be internal. It may be external. That part is irrelevant.

The work we do in the arena begins with an invitation to enter the arena. It is followed by an invitation to meet the horses. Which is followed by an invitation to share with us what the experience was like, what unfolded, what stood out or meant something to the client. How these invitations are received, what observations are made in the process, and what might be shared, or not shared, tells us more about the world and the process of the client than we could gain in several sessions in the office. An amazing amount of information can unfold in the first 30 minutes of the first session. It becomes an organic process that naturally unfolds.

We remove the pressure of “doing” and offer a space where the client can “be”. In a world of immediate gratification and never ending information and demands we human beings spend a lot of time as humans “doing”. It is in the uncomfortable moments of stillness that awareness blossoms in the arena and the “doing” that unfolds takes on a more intentional and purposeful direction. The discomfort the client may experience with our ambiguity, lack of questioning, and lack of instruction is apparent almost immediately. With all external pressure and expectations removed, what is at the foreground of the clients’ difficulties begins to be projected on to the horse(s). We see their expectations of self and others projected onto the horse, acted out in the arena, or expressed in their questions to us.

The release of pressure is equally important to the therapist. So many times I work with young therapists feeling the pressure of making something happen for the client. They want to know the “secrets” I have discovered in the thousands of hours I have spent in the arena. I hand them a pen and paper and in my most serious tone and presentation tell them to write these very important secrets down… “Shut up, get out of the way, and observe”. They can become quite annoyed at my sarcasm. Surely it cannot be that simple. It is, but not really. It can be difficult for the therapist to not interrupt the process and allow the work to unfold, let the client struggle, and/or let go of any plan or agenda that may have been theirs. In EAGALA we practice and practice and practice the foundation skill of Clean Observation so that our observations are void of judgement (just the facts ma’am). We then see where the client takes us. We formulate a few questions and make them matter. About 9 years ago I asked a newly trained EAGALA therapist what was most beneficial about the training and she said “It taught me how to truly observe, share clean observations, ask really good questions and weed out what was about me and what was about the client.” I could not have said it better.

What about the horses? The pressure is certainly removed from them. They are asked only be who they are in that moment – horses, just horses – free roaming among the human herd, interacting or not, pushing boundaries or not, engaging or disengaging. They are masters at giving people what they need or showing them what they need to see. (Sometimes it’s the same thing). A quick interpretation of horses interacting may speak volumes of a client’s life experience and view of his/her world. I truly trust my herd to do what they need to do to stir what needs to be looked at in the session. It’s my job to watch closely and ask the right questions to bring this to the surface.

I do have to speak to the hard part… this work can go deep very fast. While it may begin as a projection onto the horse, it can be internalized very quickly. I am a true believer that the Equine Assisted Psychotherapist needs to have additional tools in their basket. I attended a 2-year training at The Gestalt Institute of Phoenix, have done Marilyn Murray’s Level 1 training, am trained in Accelerated Resolution Therapy and am a voracious reader and training attendee.

While I am inclined to take new skills and utilize them in the arena, the other therapists that work in our program see clients in a traditional office setting far more than I do. They have all told me how the work we do in the arena augments their skills in the office. With that thought I will say “May the horse be with you.”

Article by Shawn Rodriguez MC, LPC

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