A Case Using Equine-Assisted Therapy
By Leanne Chapman
Melody is a 45 year old professional woman who is divorced with no children. Over the last 2 years since her divorce she had been experiencing low levels of confidence along with feelings of dissatisfaction and lack of direction in her career and personal life. She also reports losing trust in others and has begun to avoid social activities. While working with Melody, the Professional Therapist, referred to as 'T', uses Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) to assist Melody with regaining confidence and trust and identifying goals for the future.
EAT is an emerging field in which horses are used as a tool for personal growth and learning. Clients learn about themselves and how they relate to others by participating in interactive sessions with horses. These activities are undertaken primarily on the ground as EAT involves little or no riding. At the end of the session the client is invited to reflect on their experience through discussion with a therapist and via journaling. The therapist assists with identifying themes and patterns in line with the client's therapeutic goals.
Horses are regarded as members of the therapy team, facilitating awareness of unfinished business through the use of metaphor and increased self-efficacy. Research has shown that EAT clients experience significant amounts of therapeutic change, especially in the areas of assertiveness, creative thinking and problem-solving, leadership, teamwork and confidence (Klontz, Bivens, Leinart, & Klontz, 2007).
Horses are social animals that live by herd rules. Effective communication and cooperation is important within the herd because each member relies on other members for safety and survival. Therapy horses will hold a client accountable for their feelings and behaviour in response to the horse during each session. When creating a positive interaction with a horse, a client must pay attention to their nonverbal communication, and the degree of awareness a client has will determine the success of the horse-human interaction. Studies have demonstrated that a positive interaction increases a client's ability to regulate cognitive, behavioural and emotional states, enabling transfer of these skills to other areas of life (McCormick & McCormick, 1997).
Session 1 - Overcoming Self-Doubt
At the initial session T suggested she and Melody stand in the arena and focus on entering a state of relaxation while they waited to see how the horses would respond to Melody's presence. As she relaxed Melody noticed Star, a large white Lippizaner mare, starting to inch closer to her from the other end of the arena. Slowly, as Melody and T waited quietly, Star came to stand within arm's reach of them.
T then asked Melody to see if she could find a way to connect with Star so she would consent to follow Melody around the yard without being physically led. T demonstrated this first, holding the lead rope loosely as Star walked beside her, stopping when T stopped. However when Melody stood beside Star and began to move forward, Star remained where she was.
T explained that horses tune into our true nature, or 'core self'. Because they are prey animals, they will notice instantly when something is out of balance. As such they are very sensitive to human emotions, and they are also experts at non-verbal communication. If a client shows incongruence, for example acting in a confident manner but inwardly doubting themselves, a horse will find their energy confusing and will not want to connect.
Keeping this in mind, Melody tried again, this time tuning deeply into how she was really feeling instead of listening to the chatter in her head. As she maintained this awareness, Star responded immediately, willingly agreeing to walk with Melody around the arena. Following this, T showed Melody how to ask Star to lift up her feet. Taking her attention down the length of Star's body and then lightly touching a hind leg, T silently focused on Star lifting her left rear hoof which she did. Melody repeated this, struggling at first but eventually being able to focus clearly enough that Star lifted all four feet for her in turn.
Afterwards T asked Melody about her experience of the session. Melody explained that she had noticed a running battle in her head, with thoughts like 'I won't be able to do that' and 'what if this doesn't work?' stopping her from connecting with Star initially. After she dropped these thoughts and focused beyond them, she was able to be 'in the moment' and stay present to what was actually happening. She realised the truth was she could do it and it did work. This was a huge boost to her confidence levels, and T asked Melody to reflect over the following week on any other areas of her life where her thoughts about herself may not be reflecting the truth.
Session 2 - Gaining Respect
The next session was conducted with Firefly, a small mare a little larger than a pony but the matriarch of the herd. Much larger horses defer to Firefly regardless of her size because she commands their respect.
T asked Melody to spend some time grooming Firefly in the centre of the arena. Firefly had a lead rope attached but it was not tied to anything. Melody's task was to ask Firefly to stand still while she finished grooming her. At first this was easy – Firefly was very content to stay while she had her coat brushed, her mane and tail combed, and her hooves cleaned out.
However halfway through this process, T began feeding the other horses and Melody found herself struggling to keep Firefly in the arena with her. “She’s walking all over you” noted T, as Firefly kept wandering off towards the feeding area, at one point standing briefly on Melody's foot. Melody realised she would have to be firm and find the determination within herself to convince Firefly to stay until they were finished. At first Melody needed to use the lead rope to physically remind Firefly to stand still, but as Melody became more focused, she found she only needed to concentrate on what she wanted in order for Firefly to remain still.
At the end of the session, Melody decided to remove the halter and lead rope altogether to see if Firefly would walk with her in the same way Star had previously. Firefly responded immediately. When discussing the session afterwards, Melody reported that she had to work hard to keep Firefly's attention, and Firefly had literally walked over her (stepping on her foot). T explained that horses are only willing to accept leadership from us if we embody the traits of a good leader, such as respect, clear communication and confidence, a role Firefly herself performs within the herd.
Initially Melody struggled because she felt guilty that she was keeping Firefly from being fed with the other horses. This scattered Melody's focus and Firefly's attention wandered. However once Melody decided there would be plenty of food left for Firefly (in fact she also received an apple, her favourite treat) and that what they were doing was more important, Firefly responded to her.
Melody related this to her interactions with people in her workplace whom she felt did not listen to her. She was able to see that if she was firmer and more determined with her communication she might gain the respect she was seeking. T praised Melody for being able to gain Firefly's respect and suggested that she draw on this experience the next time she was in the workplace.
Session 3 - Becoming Empowered
Whiskey was the next equine therapist to work with Melody. Whiskey is a powerful member of the herd and knows how to use his strength wisely. In order to learn from him in this area, Melody needed to match her energy levels to his, which she found difficult. Melody had experienced a loss of motivation and drive over the last two years and she no longer felt in control of her life. This resulted in low energy levels and she described feeling almost invisible at times. T felt this large confident horse would have something to teach her in this area.
T suggested Melody ask Whiskey to walk with her as Star and Firefly had done previously, which he did. Then T suggested Melody engage further with Whiskey and ask him to trot beside her. T demonstrated this by jogging around the arena with Whiskey trotting alongside her. However as Melody took over, Whiskey refused to do anything but wander slowly behind her. She tried a number of times but Whiskey continued to trail behind.
T asked Melody if Whiskey's behaviour brought anything to mind for her. Melody realised that it represented the pace at which she had been moving through her life, using little energy and feeling as though she was not getting anywhere. She felt that Whiskey was demonstrating this for her to see. She also believed she did not have access to the higher level of energy she would require to get Whiskey moving faster.
T sensed that while the session had provided Melody with a level of insight, it was still unfinished. She asked if Melody would try once again to get Whiskey moving but this time to focus only on going a few steps. Breaking the original goal down into a smaller one allowed Melody to feel less overwhelmed. This time as she began to run, Whiskey finally trotted beside her for a few steps. Exhausted but with new understanding, Melody and T both agreed that the session was complete. Melody was now aware of what she needed to work on in order to start feeling in control of her life again.
Session 4 - Regaining Trust
Melody's final session was with Treasure. As a foal, Treasure had been abandoned and had to fend for herself for several months before she was rescued. T wondered if this correlated with Melody's experience of her recent divorce and her subsequent loss of trust in herself and others.
Melody discovered that asking Treasure to stand still while being groomed or to walk beside her was not as easy as it had been with Firefly.
Treasure has learned to prioritise her own well-being and has a high degree of self-reliance. To gain Treasure's cooperation, Melody realised she would have to learn to value herself more. Melody explained to T that she was used to being nice to everyone, often at her own expense, because she was worried that if she did not do this she would be perceived as selfish or aggressive.
T suggested that Treasure represented the part of Melody that 'spits and bites' and that it was important to accept this part of herself along with her more palatable side. Melody agreed that accepting her own imperfections would allow her to tolerate the shortcomings of others as well, and she acknowledged that her wellbeing was ultimately her own responsibility.
Through Treasure, Melody learned that asking firmly and respectfully for her own needs to be met was more effective than the apologetic approach she had been taking in both her personal and professional interactions. When Melody was able to respect her own needs, Treasure responded willingly to her requests. Melody told T she now recognised that it was her trust in her own judgment, rather than trust in others, which had been missing.
In summary, Melody's EAT sessions focused on a number of issues:
- Regaining trust in others by learning to trust herself and her own judgment,
- Recognising the need to increase the level of energy she was putting into her life in order to regain her motivation and begin to feel in control of her life once more,
- Learning how to gain the respect of others through the use of clear communication, confidence and determination and,
- Learning to believe in herself by challenging the self-talk and unhelpful beliefs which often stopped her from seeing what she was truly capable of.
EAT helped Melody recognise and resolve these areas during four weekly sessions with the horses. Due to the experiential nature of the treatment, Melody was able to see very quickly what was happening in her life that wasn't working for her, and how she was contributing to it. Her interactive experiences with the horses gave her new reference points to draw on in other areas of her life, and gave her a broader range of responses to choose from in situations which would normally cause her to withdraw into self-doubt and depression.
Melody stated that people in her workplace had begun to notice positive changes in her during the four weeks she attended sessions, such as making greater contributions during meetings and discussions. Melody was happy she was being noticed at all as she had previously stated she was feeling invisible. She reported being a little sceptical when she first began the EAT sessions but quickly saw how effective the approach was and the increased insight it gave her in a short period of time. Now whenever she felt reluctant to give her opinion or began to feel resentful about being overlooked by others, she found she only had to picture Star, Firefly, Whiskey or Treasure to feel her confidence rise and to regain a sense of control.
At the end of the four sessions Melody reported she was having more input at work and engaging with people socially again. She recognised how much control she had over the way she experienced the world and she was especially grateful for Treasure's lesson about not always needing to be 'nice' and put the needs of others ahead of her own.
EAT allowed Melody to experience life differently than she had even before her divorce. Self-respect was now an important value for her and the insight she gained from her experience with the horses gave her the courage to change the habits of lifetime.
Leanne Chapman graduated with a Bachelor Degree in Psychology and a Postgraduate Diploma of Professional Psychology. She also holds a Diploma of Life Coaching. She worked as a registered psychologist for 15 years before making the decision to combine creative expression with personal growth. She then set about completing training in the expressive therapies field, including Art Therapy and Equine-Assisted Therapy.
Leanne has written articles on creativity for numerous magazines and facilitated several courses at the Relaxation Centre of Queensland based on Julia Cameron’s bestselling book ‘The Artists’ Way’. Through her own healing journey, she has discovered creative processes which she now shares through individual sessions, group work, and online classes.
Klontz, B.T., Bivens, A., Leinart, D. & Klontz, T. (2007). The effectiveness of equine-assisted experiential therapy: Results of an open clinical trial. Society and Animals, 15 (2007), 257-267.
McCormick, A. & McCormick, M. (1997). Horse Sense and the Human Heart: What Horses Can Teach Us About Trust, Bonding, Creativity and Spirituality. Deerfield Beach, Florida: Health Communications, Inc.
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