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Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP)

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My name is Hadley Hill and I am an LPC, as well as certified Mental Health Specialist in equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) at Healing with Horses Ranch. We have been partnered with Sage Recovery Villa since their opening last summer, and our therapy team has very much enjoyed the opportunity to facilitate weekly EFP group sessions with Sage clients. We see it as a true privilege to be trusted as a part of people’s recovery process, and working in the realm of addiction recovery has shown us that our beloved horses have the power to heal in even more ways than we ever realized! I am happy for the chance to contribute to this blog and provide a window into what exactly it is that goes on for clients out there in the pasture. There are currently quite a few different models of EFP, but the way we practice it at HHR really comes down to relationship and connection. Horses are sentient beings and they are social animals – they depend on the herd for safety and survival, just as we humans require connection with others to survive and thrive. EFP makes a departure from the way most of us are accustomed to interacting with horses. That is, instead of a relationship that’s about control and compliance, we strive for a relationship with our horses that is mutually beneficial and affords them the same rights we would afford another human being – choice, consent, trust, a sense of safety, respect for boundaries, and being heard when they “say” something to us. The goal is to build a relationship in which the horse is choosing to connect because he wants to, not simply complying with us because he feels he has no choice. The reasons EFP can be so beneficial in work with addiction are really the same reasons it is beneficial with almost any population. Most who work in the field of addiction or are otherwise familiar with it understand that the addiction itself is most often a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. Addiction is so closely tied to human connection (or more often, the lack of it) – when people are deep in the throes of addiction their relationships inevitably suffer, and the more difficulty they have connecting with others, the more isolated and alone they can feel, which we know can be one of the biggest triggers of using. Working with the horses provides clients with an emotionally safe space in which to address the unhealthy patterns that may be keeping them stuck and contributing to their substance use and other self-destructive behavior, because these patterns never fail to show up with the horses. You may have heard the old phrase “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.” Equine therapy is a beautiful demonstration of this. The way clients approach relationships in their life inevitably plays out in their interaction with the horses. The difference though is that unlike humans, horses live entirely in the present moment, they don’t judge, they don’t hold grudges, they don’t care what you did yesterday or what you’ll do tomorrow… they just care who you are and what you are doing right now. They are also very honest 100% of the time because have no reason to lie, fake it, censor themselves, or put up with something that makes them uncomfortable – all things that we humans are frequently guilty of doing, which only serve to hurt our relationships in the long run. The horses provide incredibly valuable and immediate feedback letting us know how we are making them feel, quickly bringing someone’s subconscious patterns into awareness. They may not speak English but they tell us a whole lot with their body language. One of the first things clients learn in our sessions is how to read horse language and then respond appropriately – relaxed eyes, stretched neck and tilted head? You found the perfect itchy spot, keep it up! Angry flat ears and crinkled up nose? Time to back off and give some space. Head high, ears up and alert, staring intently in one direction? Try to look where he’s looking and see what it is your horse has noticed and is possibly alarmed by. People who may not be so good at tuning into the mental and emotional state of others around them learn very quickly that they have to do this with horses if they want to keep themselves safe around them. And the more they practice doing this with horses, the more habitual it starts to become to pause, take a breath, assess the state of themselves and those around them, and recognize when they might need to take a little time and space to regulate their emotions – all before approaching a relationship. We incorporate a lot of emotional regulation work in our sessions because the safest way to approach our horses (and any relationship) is in a regulated, self-aware state. The immediate honest feedback from the horses provides clients with an opportunity to respond and adjust their behavior in the moment, and a chance to practice relationship repair with a being that easily forgives. There is nothing cooler than watching a client’s face as she suddenly connects the dots that the way she just approached this horse is the way she approaches all of her relationships with others. Very rarely in our sessions do we halter our horses or restrain them in any way. The reason for this is not only because we want to afford them the freedom of choice, but also because we believe that horses have the most to teach us when they are allowed to simply be themselves, unencumbered by our agenda. It feels a lot more impactful to someone when a horse has the freedom to roam all over several acres yet chooses to approach and remain right next to him, as opposed to being tied up or held there, making it unclear whether the horse truly desires that closeness. There is also so much learning opportunity in simply observing horses in their element, out in the herd. Horses are natural experts at many of the things that we humans struggle with, and herd dynamics demonstrate those things beautifully. They communicate their boundaries with each other clearly and efficiently, and in turn they listen and respect those boundaries. They let things go, literally shaking off stress or discharging it in a number of other ways (yawning, deep breaths and blowing out, licking their lips and chewing, sometimes even dropping to the ground for a good roll). They work together, taking turns keeping their eye out for danger so others can relax and rest. They pick their battles. They listen to their bodies and take care of their needs without thinking twice about it. They eat when they’re hungry. They stop when they’re full (which is… almost never). They drink when they’re thirsty. They take breaks to rest. They move away and give themselves space when they need to, and are not afraid to request closeness and connection from others when they need that. Another reason horses are particularly good for this kind of work is because they require significant work and effort from the other in order to feel safe enough to connect. Being prey animals (as opposed to predators like dogs, cats and, technically, humans), their brains are naturally wired to be hypervigilant and ready for fight-or-flight at the drop of a hat (in fact their brain wiring is actually strikingly similar to that of a person living with PTSD). Above all else, horses must feel safe around us if we want to have a relationship with them. This requires active efforts on our part to build trust through listening to them and respecting their needs. Horses are also subtle – they do not typically smother us with excited affection the way dogs do. Our clients often go into the experience with a certain expectation of what connection and affection will look like from a horse, and then have to learn to recognize and appreciate how subtle it can actually look. If our horse Lacey is simply standing very close to a client but intently focused on grazing, this might come across to them at first as “ignoring” or lack of interest. But when they get to know Lacey further and understand that she is not crazy about being touched and is therefore not the most affectionate horse, they begin to recognize that for Lacey, simply choosing to stand so near to someone while also feeling safe and comfortable enough to graze (a vulnerable position for a prey animal) is a relatively large demonstration of connection and trust. I could easily go on all day and write a novel about this topic, but for now I will choose one more aspect of equine therapy to wrap this up with. One of the most powerful lessons that clients often take with them from equine therapy is the realization that their presence alone is interesting and worthy of connection. Clients will often start out feeling like they always have to have something to give or a service to provide – treats, a handful of grass, or some kind of prop to make them more interesting or appealing. We challenge them to drop all of that and just be. It is an emotional moment to watch a client’s face when they recognize that a horse finds them worthy of connection without the armor or the masks we all wear… simply as they are. There are few lessons more important in life than realizing that you are enough.