Benefits of the horse-human relationship have been documented for centuries. Partnerships through war; working horses as a necessity for income through farming and transport; and of course, riding for leisure.
Therapeutic models of equine therapy began to emerge as people experienced benefits from riding the horse and becoming ‘at one’ with their movement (Hippotherapy). Aside to the ridden benefits, the relationship between the horse and human on the ground has always demonstrated many depths of positive experience that can be shared together, offering a gentle, yet effective model for psychotherapy.
Horses are social mammals that live in groups and small communities similar to humans. They are highly emotionally intelligent and non-judgemental, offering the opportunity to build ever-lasting, strong, and special relationships with each other and humans.
Horses and humans resonate on an emotional level. When we are in tune with someone emotionally, it can bring about positive change, not only on a behavioural or emotional level, but physically and neurologically too.
Horses offer a safe and gentle space to explore our feelings, without the need to verbalise and compute everything. They are congruent, honest beings, who live in the moment. This offers us a platform to learn self-awareness of our behaviours and feelings. Horses are therefore particularly good at teaching us to have a healthy relationship with ourselves and others. Emotion regulation and stabilisation from trauma can be achieved gently and effectively, as well as having capabilities similar to EMDR.
What does a typical session look like
We spend the first 10-15 minutes verbally checking in. This is followed by a guided body-scan meditation, before interacting with the herd, either at liberty in the paddock or through one-one partnership with an individual horse. Sometimes the practitioner facilitates exercises in the round pen or arena that teaches you tools to regulate your emotions through non-verbal communication with the horse. Other times, you may sit quietly observing the herd dynamics.
Every session is rich with something that the horse chooses to educate us with.
Both humans and horses have a well-developed limbic system within the brain. The limbic system, also known as the ‘reptilian brain’, is responsible for emotion and its regulation (Fulton, 1953), and incudes the formation of new memories to past experiences. Limbic neural pathways develop early, before the capacity for verbal and logical reasoning, thus forming the foundation for attachment and belonging throughout life (Szalavitz & Perry, 2010).
Restructuring neural pathways
Lewis et al. (2000) propose that to move a person from any prolonged, undesired emotional state (trauma, anxiety, depression, addiction etc.) to healing, requires the neural pathways in the brain to be restructured. The only way for this to happen is for the individual to experience new responses and activities, which sooth or regulate the limbic region of the brain. This neurological ‘re-wiring’ will occur when the following three stages are met.
- Limbic resonance: shared empathy in which two mammals attune to each other’s inner states.
- Limbic regulation: two mammals reading each other’s emotional cues, adjusting to each other and physiologically soothing or regulating the other.
- Limbic revision: the adaptation to a healthier template for future relationships.
Neural restructuring via Lewis et al.’s (2000) three stages is achieved through the powerful and effective therapeutic intervention of equine facilitated psychotherapy (EFP), as an alternative to talking therapy. With the assistance of exercises facilitated by a qualified mental health professional, specifically an EFP practitioner, horses can facilitate the three stages in the following way:
- Limbic resonance: horses are naturally non-verbal and have a heart which is ten times the size of a human’s heart. Simply being amongst a herd of horses naturally creates limbic resonance by becoming part of the magnetic energy field and leads to resonating with and tuning into the horses (McCraty & Zayas, 2014).
- Limbic regulation: human arousal levels (e.g. high anxiety/ severe depression) are required to become regulated in order to become accepted by and to engage with any horse(s). Therefore, the individual begins to learn healthy adjustment and control of his/ her limbic regulation (Panksepp, 2011). In some instances, where a person cannot achieve this at first, horses offer limbic resonance through emotional support, and start to soothe and regulate for them.
- Limbic revision is achieved through specific exercises or tasks assigned to the client by the therapist, which necessitates the individual to regulate themselves and respond to cues from the horse with a new emotion. This allows for restructuring of neural pathways that move away from the initial traumatic response. Since horses are socially supportive and able to give love and unconditional acceptance, humans experience a template for future relationships (Trotter et al., 2008).
EFP offers a multidimensional process of healing for the person: emotionally, physically, neurologically, and behaviourally; making it a powerful, yet gentle alternative to traditional talking therapies.
Williams, P. (2018). Working with relational trauma: limbic restructuring through equine facilitated psychotherapy. In K. Trotter and J. Baggerly (Eds.), Equine-Assisted Mental Health for Healing Trauma. New York, NY: Routledge.
How we can help
"When I first started my journey with Philippa, it was before my GCSE results. I had never been to a therapist before and was unsure what to expect. I was intensely worried about passing my GCSE results at the time. I attended a meet the herd session where I was introduced to three horses. Over time I developed a working relationship with Philippa and the horses where I learned the body scan technique to help calm myself and focus before going into a session with the horses. There I would try to connect with the horses and attempt to better understand my emotions, worries and thoughts.
These sessions greatly helped me through my GCSEs and later A levels. I have both Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. These mental disabilities affect me to this day, but to a greater extent then. These therapeutic sessions with both Philippa and the horses helped me to overcome some of the negative aspects of these mental disabilities, as well as to help to deal with the overwhelming stress of doing my A levels. Over time I transitioned more to a room based setting where I began to be introduced to CBT therapy and understanding the concept of shame in holding back myself in engaging with the world and interacting with other people.
I have known Philippa for 4 years and I can say that my journey of therapy starting when I was 16 has been overwhelmingly positive and that I am still currently on the path to help improve myself and to use the horse therapy to continue to develop a more positive relationship with myself. I would recommend this service to anyone who may need a different form of therapy which is not just room based."
- T.L, June 2020