By Karen Frederick, Ph.D., LPC
God has put an amazing variety of animals on this earth for our help and pleasure. Most horse owners are well aware of the therapeutic value of horses. Working with horses and participating in their care, feeding, and grooming has been found to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and improve overall health. It has been clinically documented that simply being in the presence of horses changes human brainwave patterns. Winston Churchill summed it up best when he said, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
As Christians, we have a deeper understanding of God’s creations and creatures and the ways He speaks to man’s heart through them. The Bible is very explicit in telling us about the many ways God uses animals to speak His message to us and to reveal Himself to us. We can see the acknowledgement of God as the creator in Psalm 104:24 (The New International Version): “How many are your works, LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.”
God uses his creation and creatures to reveal Himself, His attributes, and His power. Romans 1:20 says: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”
Even when mankind fails to honor the Lord, Isaiah 43:20 states, “The wild animals honor me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to my people, my chosen.”
The Bible specifically tells us that animals will teach us; in Job 12:7-10 it states, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In His hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”
There is little doubt that God’s creation, the horse, has profoundly impacted the history and well being of mankind. Horses have plowed fields, carried soldiers to battle, transported goods to markets, and given people of every status the ability to travel more quickly and easily. In more recent decades, horses are no longer seen as laborers or beasts of burden. Horses are being used to help people with a wide range of emotional difficulties. No consensus has been reached as to one proper term to be used when equines are involved in mental health treatment. In this article, the term equine-assisted counseling (EAC) is being used as a universal term for interventions that involve the use of a horse in order to benefit the mental or emotional well being of a human participant.
Research indicates that therapy involving horses may yield a variety of psychotherapeutic benefits, including the following: self-confidence, self-concept, communication, trust, perspective, anxiety reduction, decreased isolation, self-acceptance, impulse modulation, assertiveness, boundaries, creative freedom, and spiritual growth (Marx & Cumella, 2003; Ewing, MacDonald, Taylor, & Bowers, 2007; Trotter, Chandler, Goodwin-Bond, & Casey, 2008; Bass, Duchowny, & Llabre, 2009).
The benefits of equine-assisted counseling (EAC) have been reported in a variety of clinical groups, mostly in the form of observations from the field and participant statements. Tyler (1994) discussed the use of EAC in the treatment of clients with emotional problems, particularly adolescents. McCormick and McCormick (1997) reported on their work implementing EAI with adolescents. Moore, Wagner, and Jeffrey (2009) used EAC with clients attempting to overcome substance abuse. Others have expressed support for the use of EAC with behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and communication needs (Carpenter, 1997; Katcher & Wilkins, 1998).
Chandler (2005) utilized EAC with male and female juvenile offenders and found that the participants displayed increases in positive behaviors such as communication skills, support and encouragement for others, and increased desire to complete a task. She also noted a reduction or elimination of negative behaviors such as fear and manipulation. Other benefits seen by Chandler included greater courage, stress management, and anxiety-reduction skills.
Trotter et al. (2008) investigated the efficacy of group EAC with at-risk adolescents and found that at-risk youth who received EAC showed statistically significant improvement in seventeen behavior areas whereas students who received classroom-based counseling showed improvement in only five areas.
Kersten & Thomas (2004) posit that the challenge of controlling the movement of a 1,000-pound creature requires concentration, creativity, and resourcefulness and that success in doing so improves self-esteem, confidence, communication skills, trust, and boundaries. A recurrent theme in the literature seems to indicate that the more difficult a client is to work with in traditional counseling, the more likely it is that that client will do well in EAC (Trotter et al, 2008).
So, what exactly IS Equine-Assisted Counseling (EAC)? EAC sessions involve a mental health counselor, an equine professional, and a client. The activities that the therapist chooses should be based on the needs of the client. Through observing the client’s interactions and responses to the horse, the counselor gains a lot of information. For example, if the client approaches the horse and the horse walks away, the counselor is interested in observing how the client responds to the horse walking away. Does the client pursue? Does the client give up and say, “I guess he doesn’t like me”? Whatever the response—the counselor has information (Trotter, 2012).
It is important to note that there are different approaches to EAC. Some counselors incorporate horseback riding in their therapy. For a number of reasons, this author does NOT incorporate riding into the therapy process. This can be disappointing to some clients, but in this author’s opinion, safety concerns outweigh the potential benefits of riding. Another important consideration is that Equine Assisted Counseling is not the same as hippotherapy or therapeutic riding—which incorporates horses for the physical benefits of the clients. Hippotherapy is frequently used with clients with a physical handicap. EAC focuses on the mental health benefits of horses.
Some of the early, critical EAC sessions include clients’ learning about how to initiate, direct, and stop the movement of the horse. This may sound simple, but there IS one stipulation—clients are not permitted to use ropes or halters, and they are not permitted to “bribe” the horses with feed, treats, etc. They must communicate with voice and body language in order to initiate, direct, and stop the movement of the horse. Once the client understands the basics of these skills, the fun activities can begin. One example of a favorite activity includes setting up an obstacle course that the client will have to get a horse through. Clients will identify each obstacle and compare it with an obstacle that they are personally facing in their life (difficulty at school, bullying, relationship troubles, etc.). Once the course is set up and the obstacles are identified, the client has the task of getting the horse through/over/around the obstacles.
It may be different for each individual. EAC may be effective because working with God’s creation helps man see God’s invisible qualities. Working with horses may allow God’s creation, the horse, to teach us about ourselves, about God, about our relationships with others, etc. We all have so much to learn! And God, in His wisdom, has infinite methods of revealing Himself and communing with us for His purposes. EAC seems to be yet another way that God can provide emotional healing to those in need.
Karen Frederick, Ph.D., LPC, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Houston Baptist University. Dr. Frederick’s main research interest is Equine Assisted Counseling. She is applying for grants to fund further research on the use of Equine Assisted Counseling with at-risk youth. She has written a chapter in a newly published book entitled: Equine-Assisted Mental Health Interventions (2019) by Trotter, K.S. and Baggerly, J.N. New York, NY: Routledge.
Bass, M. M., Duchowny, C. A., & Llabre, M. M. (2009) The effect of therapeutic horseback riding on social functioning in children with autism. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 39(9), 1261-1267.
Carpenter, S. (1997). Therapeutic roles of animals. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 211, 154-155.
Chandler, C. K. (2005). Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling. New York: Routledge.
Ewing, C. A., MacDonald, P. M., Taylor, M., & Bowers, M. J. (2007). Equine-facilitated learning for youths with severe emotional disorders: A quantitative and qualitative study. Child and Youth Care Forum, 36, 59-72.
Katcher, A. H. and Wilkins, G. G. (1998). Animal-assisted therapy in the treatment of disruptive behavior disorders in children. In A. Lundberg (Ed.), The Environment and Mental Health: A Guide for Clinicians pp. 193-204). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Kersten, G. & Thomas, L. (2004) Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning Un-Training Manual. Santaquin, UT: Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA).
Marx, R. D., & Cumella, E. J. (2003). Questions & answers. Eating Disorders, 11, 143-147.
McCormick, A., & McCormick, M. D. (1997). Horse Sense and the Human Heart: What Horses Can Teach Us About Trust, Bonding, Creativity, and Spirituality. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
Moore, L., Wagner, P., & Jeffrey, H. (2009). Addiction programming model at its best. Paper presented at the 10th annual conference of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, Asheville, NC.
Trotter, K.S. (2012). Harnessing the Power of Equine Assisted Counseling. New York, NY: Routledge.
Trotter, K. S., Chandler, C. K., Goodwin-Bond, D. G., & Casey, J. (2008). A comparative study of the efficacy of group equine assisted counseling with at-risk children and adolescents. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 3(3), 254-284.
Tyler, J. J. (1994). Equine psychotherapy: Worth more than just a horse laugh. Women & Therapy, 15, 3-4, 139-146.
[Editor’s Note: Christianity, Mind and Mental Health image from Van Gogh’s The Pietà (after Delacroix), 1889, found at Wikipedia Commons.}