As I shared recently, I experienced a wonderful healing session with three amazing therapy horses in Moscow, TN, and I asked Jennifer and Shilo to share some interview time with me so that you could learn a bit more about equine therapy and the services they offer our community.
Jennifer and Shilo, I am so thrilled to have spent time with you and your horses. My session was so powerful and relevant, especially after I took the time to process my experience. What kinds of feedback do you get from clients who experience these sessions?
We are so happy you had such a positive and lasting experience. And you’re right! The processing continues well after the session ends. A lot of the feedback we have received has been similar to what you describe. In the moment, working and being with the horses, certain shifts or insights happen, but the processing that occurs after the session always seems to be the most powerful. We have had several people tell us several days to several weeks after their time with the horses that it had lasting impact and they are still continuing to chew on the experience. That being said, the most common feedback we get is about the horses, how the horses in their constant presence and ability to hold space, really made a connection with them, even if it was only for the duration of the session or for just a few moments of the session. Even after the session has ended, the connection with the horses seems to remain present.
What does Equine Therapy mean? What does it NOT mean?
By definition, equine therapy is a type of animal-assisted therapy, which means an animal is included into the therapeutic process to enhance the therapeutic relationship and progress toward treatment goals. Equine therapy does not mean that we conduct a therapy session and a horse (or horses) just happen(s) to be present at the same time. In equine therapy, the horse(s) become(s) part of the treatment team. We consider the horses to be our partners, providing us with information about emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and patterns in our clients that we can use to help deepen the therapeutic process. The horses are not a tool in the approach we use. They are collaborators and they have needs and things to say and express about how they work with our clients. And we listen to them and use their feedback.
I believe it was renowned animal-assisted therapist Rise van Fleet who stated that adding an animal into the therapy process should not be the reason you feel comfortable working with a specific client issue or diagnosis. In fact, if we do not feel comfortable working with a specific presenting issue in a traditional therapy setting, we would not work on that issue in the presence of the horses. Integrating a horse into the therapy process does not automatically mean anyone or anything can be treated, and we have to consider our limitations and scope of practice as professionals.
What do clients usually come to the horses to resolve or to explore? (trust issues, relationships, fears, etc.)
Well, that’s a big question that is going to get a big response, though we will try to make it as succinct as possible. Research in the field of equine therapy has shown equine therapy is helpful for a variety of mental health diagnoses and presenting issues. Briefly, it has been used successfully in treating trauma and PTSD, depression, anxiety, and mood disorders, grief and loss, relationship and attachment issues, behavioral and conduct problems, learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, addictions, and communication problems. Equine therapy is flexible and can be used in group, individual, or family therapy modalities and can also be applied to many existing counseling theories, like CBT, REBT, ACT, person-centered therapies, and even some alcohol and drug treatment models.
On a more personal level, and moving away from diagnoses, equine therapy can quickly tap into deeper, underlying issues that sustain or create some of the aforementioned disorders. We have seen people come to a session wanting to work on procrastination, self-esteem and self-worth, depression, behavioral problems, and anxiety—and it is amazing how quickly deeper core beliefs and patterns of functioning are brought to the surface through the interactions with the horses. We have also seen equine therapy experiences tap into and further spiritual and personal growth and development.
I remember when I came for a visit, you shared that you have created a day-long “retreat for therapists”. That sounds fantastic. What would that look like?
Oftentimes the healers in our world are ignored. And, a lot of healers put their own needs on the backburner and focus their time, energy, and attention on helping others. We feel strongly that you cannot pour from an empty glass, so our retreat focuses on helping those in the helping professions reconnect with their purpose and passion while also giving them an opportunity to rest and restore. We incorporate time with the horses, yoga, meditation, and art to provide the space for healers to rebalance.
Another thing we have been to do as well is host some informational groups where we invite local mental health providers, such as counselors, social workers, and school counselors, out to learn about equine therapy, how it works, what it can treat, and how to make referrals to our practice. Part of the information group is getting to experience an equine-assisted learning group so the practitioners that attend can experience the magic and power of working with the horses and have an opportunity to see what their clients may be able to experience.
Are people allowed to ride your horses, or is therapy only from interaction on the ground?
There are equine therapy programs and models that allow clients to ride in order to receive a variety of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. However, all of our therapeutic work with the horses is on the ground. By having the client work with the horses on the ground, a relationship has to be established in a way the horses understand. Ground work and interactions place the client on the horses’ level. It also gives the horses freedom of choice, just as we would want any person to have. Ground work with horses creates plenty of opportunity for learning new ways to interact, gain insight toward modifying existing patterns of interacting that may not be very productive or useful, and allows for more opportunities for mirroring, reflection, projection, and experiential processing.
I was thrilled to find out how close you were to North Mississippi; it takes me about an hour and a half to get to you from Tupelo, MS, so I consider my area part of your “community”. I imagine that you are fairly close to Memphis, Nashville, and Jackson, as well as North MS. Considering you work with a fairly wide community, how would you like to expand your programs to meet the needs of this area?
We would love to be the go-to people for providing equine therapy services to the community at large. Oftentimes, a lot of programs are part of organizations that specifically address unique populations, such as veterans and children with disabilities. And while these programs are so incredibly important to capturing populations that need help, it unfortunately does not leave a lot of room for people who do not fit into those specific populations. We hope that by remaining a private entity we will be able to provide services to people in the community who want to have the experience or feel that equine therapy may help them or someone they love personally achieve goals. To do this we work hard to establish relationships with local providers and try to raise awareness of the benefits of equine therapy as well as how to refer to or contact us. One of our goals for 2017 is to develop more specifically targeted group equine therapy options so that clients can experience equine therapy.
Do your clients ride or groom and care for your horses, or do they only have a session inside the arena?
The approach we use and were trained in, EAGALA, uses only ground work with the horses. So, in short, there is no riding. However, we work very collaboratively with anyone who wants to engage in our equine therapy services to ensure that the interactions with the horses and the activities or tasks will work toward achieving established goals and addressing identified issues. This may mean that grooming and caring for the horses becomes an integral part of the process, or that sessions can occur in one of the three pastures or in the barn as well as the arena. But it depends on who we are working with and what he or she is wanting to accomplish or address.
Do you schedule post EAP sessions with your clients to assist them in processing their experiences?
Yes and no. There is usually a follow-up conversation a few days following the session in some way, shape, or form. But not all our clients want traditional talk therapy between sessions or even a conversation. Plus, sometimes we have found that giving people space to be with themselves and their process is the best intervention we can provide. Unless we have concerns and want to touch base between sessions or think that would be best for the treatment plan, we usually let our clients make that decision for themselves. Of course, some of our clients see primary therapists in addition to the equine therapy, so processing may occur within the context of those therapy sessions.
How could a licensed therapist collaborate with you in order to make this powerful therapy available to their clients?
Equine therapy is a great supplemental therapy that has been proven to enhance ongoing therapeutic work and helps clients move through potential blocks they may be encountering in therapy currently. We have invited referring therapists to come out for their clients’ sessions if the client and their primary therapist believe it would be helpful to their therapeutic process and their relationship. If someone wants to refer a client, of course they can very easily just have their client contact us whenever they feel the time is right. However, if the therapist wants to discuss their client more specifically and how the services may be beneficial, we would request a signed authorization to release information so that specifics could be discussed.
Jennifer A. Drabowicz, M.S., LPC-MHSP, ACS, EAGALA Certified Practitioner, Heart-Centered Hypnotherapy Provider