Equine-facilitated group psychotherapy: applications for therapeutic vaulting

Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 23:587–603, 2002Copyright c 0161-2840 /02 $12.00 + .00DOI: 10.1080/0161284029005273 0 EQUINE-FACILITATED GROUP
Maureen Vidrine, MS, RN, CS
Department of Behavioral Health, Grady Health System,
Atlanta, Georgia, USA
Patti Owen-Smith, PhD
Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, Oxford
College of Emory University, Oxford, Georgia, USA
Priscilla Faulkner, PsyD
Pathways Transition Program, Tucker, Georgia, USA

In this day of high-tech, managed-care service delivery withan emphasis on medication and brief treatment, it isimportant for nurses to be aware of nontraditional treatmentoptions that may be uniquely bene cial for some clients.
Although it may still be considered a novelty, includinganimals in the healing milieu is not a new idea. FlorenceNightingale herself suggested that “a small pet animal isoften an excellent companion for the sick, for long chroniccases especially” (Nightingale, 1969, p. 102). Healing,according to one recent nursing article, can be seen as “agradual awakening to a deeper sense of the self (and of theself in relation to others) in a way that effects profoundchange” (Dorsey & Dorsey, 1998, p. 36). Equine-facilitatedpsychotherapy, while not a new idea, is a little-knownexperiential intervention that offers the opportunity toachieve this type of awakening. In this article, the reader isintroduced to equine-facilitated psychotherapy’s theoreticalunderpinnings, techniques, and outcomes as illustrated byactual clinical vignettes and research ndings.
Address correspondenc e to Maureen Vidrine, 880 Bethel Church Road, Monroe, GA 30655.
Equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) refers to the inclusion of a horse in the psychotherapy session (Equine-Facilitated Mental Health Association, 1998). It is not to be confused with hippotherapy, which is a physical, occupational, or speech therapy session that includes the horse, or therapeutic horsemanship/therapeutic riding, which is a riding or horsemanship lesson adapted to participants’ special needs. Typi- cally, the EFP horse is a specially-selected and trained horse with whom the psychotherapis t has a trusting relationship. The psychotherapis t is ideally very knowledgeable about and comfortable with horses, and is a seasoned therapist with training in experiential approaches. Horse Time, a nonpro t equine-facilitated mental health and wellness center near Atlanta, Georgia, was founded and is staffed by two such therapists: a licensed Clinical Psychologist and a certi ed Psychiatric-Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist. Horse Time provides individual, group, and family psychotherapy in the context of a 120-acre family-owned horse Since the founding of the practice, Horse Time has employed vaulting as the group therapy activity of choice. Vaulting, which is “the art of dance/gymnastics on the back of a moving horse” (Coburn, 2001, p. 25), is an ancient sport that was featured in the games of early Rome along with chariot and horse racing. During the Middle Ages knights practiced jumping onto horses and performing elegant exercises on horseback while in armor. During the Renaissance, vaulting was a preparatory exercise for riding but evolved into an independent discipline in which the horse was replaced by a wooden model.
Modern vaulting, as it is practiced today, is heavily utilized in European countries to prepare equestrians for riding and as therapy for special needs individuals. Vaulting was rst included in the World Equestrian Games in 1990, and in 1996 it was featured in an exhibi- tion at the Olympic equestrian events in Conyers, Georgia. Because the longeur, at the center of the ring, controls the horses’ direction, speed, and gait, the vaulter is freed of these responsibilitie s and is able to focus on the body-to-body experience of shared energy, impulsion, rhythm, and balance. Therapeutic vaulting is based on the structure and techniques of competitive vaulting but emphasizes the developmental sequence of the compulsory moves, teamwork in horse care, communi- cation in doubles and triples moves, and self-expression in the freestyle (kur) moves. While advanced vaulting requires years of preparation, therapeutic vaulting is ideal for beginners. Exercises are individuall y tailored to the participants’ needs and success at some level can be vir- tually guaranteed. All vaulting moves are rst mastered on a stationary barrel and are rst (and sometimes only) performed on the horse at Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy FIGURE 1. Constellation of therapist, client, and horse in vaulting as equine-
facilitated group psychotherapy (courtesy Debra DeWitt).
a walk. Therapeutic vaulting strives for comfort, balance, and success for each vaulter rather than stressing competition. Figure 1 illustrates the constellation of horse, therapist, and vaulter/client during mounted REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
The general topic of animal-facilitate d therapy has been fairly well- published for the past two decades. In 1980 an animal-facilitated therapy paper rst appeared in a recognized medical journal. That study showed that pet owners experienced a statistically signi cant degree of increase in 1-year survival after discharge from a coronary care unit when com- pared to nonowners (Beck, 2000). Studies speci c to equines in psy- chotherapy are much more dif cult to nd; however, a few papers do refer to clinical applications for vaulting or general horse experiences.
Kroeger (1992) provides a practical description of a vaulting class for elementary school students with special needs, but does not speci cally discuss vaulting as experiential psychotherapy. Cole (1992) explores symbol and metaphor embedded in equine experiences within a Jungian framework. As a psychotherapis t herself, Cole introduces concepts that can be applied in a clinical setting. However, she does not speci cally address vaulting in this article. Rector (1992) describes the integration of equine experience into an inpatient psychiatric and substance abuse treatment program. She accentuates the power of the horse in teaching humans to send congruent messages with spoken and body language.
Tedeschi (1991) wrote of including the horse in the provision of indi- vidual and group psychotherapy services for children and adolescents requiring behavior modi cation and motivation, but does not speci cally Schultz (1999) beautifully illustrates the fundamental connection be- tween movement and human development in an article that describes a form of mounted activity that more closely resembles vaulting than rid- ing. In this paper, Schultz outlines four basic ways that mounted equine experience can in uence the development of self-identity. She reminds the reader of the importance of rhythm as one of the rst experiences of the developing child and also as an essential aspect of the mounted equine experience. She describes the ways in which a “holding envi- ronment” is created in the horse-human dyad, and draws a connection between “preverbal movement dialogue between mother and child to the movement dialogue between rider and horse” (Schultz, 1999, p. 46).
Schultz explains that “the skin as a media for self-experience and com- munication is important for building up body-identity ” and relates this directly to “getting into close skin contact to a big and supporting living being” in mounted activities (Schultz, 1999, p. 47). Space orientation and structuring are essential for the development of stimulation modu- lation and object permanence, according to this author, and movement experiences allow for their development, correction, and reinforcement.
Lastly, Schultz argues that mounted experience lays a foundation for the personal integration of time orientation, which provides for a feeling of predictability and security in the child’s world.
The unique attributes of horses as members of the therapeutic mi- lieu are enumerated by McCormick and McCormick (1997). As in the Schultz article, the parallels between the human-infant and horse- human relationships are underscored, along with an emphasis on the importance of touch and rhythm. Because people can actually ride horses, there is a unique opportunity to experience the deeper dimen- sions of the human-animal relationship. The McCormicks propose that “the Equine Experience, either through riding or simply watching the Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy movement, sweeps us into a realm of feeling : : : we are enabled to circumvent our entrenched defenses and habitual reactivity : : : we be- come far more receptive to new ideas and behaviors” (McCormick & McCormick, 1997, p. 64) . The McCormicks echo our own experience of horses as very large mirrors that promote consciousness by re ecting our behaviors. Because we interact with them in such a physical way, we must learn to congruently communicate with the horse, who may weigh somewhere between 800 and 2,000 pounds. The human cannot depend solely on verbal language, which necessitates an authentic awareness and sharing of body awareness and intention. Animal-assisted ther- apy pioneer Aaron Katcher shares a perspective on this size differen- tial that is particularly thought-provoking : “The ratio between body weight of a horse and a person is not unlike the ratio between body weight of mother and infant” (Personal communication, June 8, 2001).
Beck, Hunter, and Seraydarian (1986) suggested that a therapist who conducts therapy with an animal present may appear less threatening and, consequently, the client may be more willing to reveal him- or Retrievable quantitative studies on equine-facilitated psychotherapy in the English language are almost nonexistent. Most publications on the subject are case studies, anecdotal data, uncontrolled or poorly con- structed, in a non-English language, or awkwardly translated. What re- ports are available are described as examining the effects of therapeutic riding or horsemanship rather than treatment facilitated by a therapist.
Cawley, Cawley, and Retter (1994) studied therapeutic horseback rid- ing and self-concept in 29 adolescents with special educational needs.
Using a one group pre- and posttest design, their study revealed statis- tically signi cant increases on the behavior cluster of the Piers Harris Children’s Self-Concept Scale, indicating that the participants felt their behavior had improved. Krawetz and DePrekel (1993) examined the ef- fects of therapeutic horseback riding on 46 5th and 6th grade girls with emotional and behavioral problems. Statistically signi cant increases were achieved in social acceptance, close friendships, and global self- worth on Harter’s Self-Perception Pro le. Emory (1992) examined the effects of therapeutic horsemanship on the self-concept and behavior of 20 asocial adolescent males. Statistically signi cant improvement in self-concept was achieved utilizing the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist and Teacher Report Form and The Piers-Harris Self-Concept The use of experiential psychotherapy is supported by the theoret- ical constructs of therapeutic metaphor and body-based treatment ap- proaches. Caldwell (1996, p. 13), in her book on body-based therapeutic approaches, postulates that “any event that occurs—whether physical, emotional, cognitive, or spiritual—impacts our whole being.” She also proposes that simply having a witness to our sensory and somatic ex- perience is a powerful healing tool: “What we need is a Witness— to reclaim our curiosity, our openness, our awakeness to life : : : a witness is someone who is present, who observes. We are all born with the abililty to witness, and for some it is savored, while for others it is closed down” (Caldwell, 1996, p. 97). It seems reasonable to conceptualize the horse as a silent witness to the client’s sensory and somatic experience. Siegel (1984), in her ground-breaking book on dance-movement therapy, reminds us that “a powerful element, motility itself, creates a whole new dimension to transference” (p. 88).
She details six basic working hypotheses for dance-movement therapy which also have relevance to equine-facilitated treatment, in- cluding: “Concern for recreating the harmonious whole of psyche and soma by extending help toward more adequate physical functioning and through building a better body image” and “Skeletomuscular inhibi- tions are seen as an attempt to express and control aggressive impulses” Mills and Crowley (1986) make a convincing case for the effec- tiveness of therapeutic metaphor as described by Jung, Milton Erickson, Sheldon Kopp, and other clinicians in the last 50 years. Par- ticularly relevant to equine-facilitated psychotherapy is their descrip- tion of split-brain research. It appears that metaphor is “the language of the right brain,” which implies that therapeutic metaphor (such as experiential therapy) allows direct communication with the “imagistic, implicative, contextual, and uid” half of the brain; the side that pro- cesses information in a “simultaneous, holistic, and implicative” fashion (Mills & Crowley, 1986, pp. 24–25). For children, the developmen- tally delayed, treatment-refractory, or guarded patients, this type of ap- proach seems more appropriate than traditional, insight-oriented , literal language-based therapies as it bypasses the left brain’s ego defenses and Jung’s theory of symbols and their corresponding archetypal energies is applied by Mills and Crowley as they speak of “metaphorical proto- types” that are “to our spirit what our organs are to the body” (Mills & Crowley, 1986, p. 13). The archetypal energy of horses is widely known and celebrated—Pegasus, winged horse of creativity; Epona, Celtic horse goddess and protectress; magical unicorns of ancient myth; The Black Stallion; and even modern-day Misty of Chincoteague, the mater- nal spotted pony—myth, literature, fairy tales, fables, and modern media are lled with images of the magical, the brave, the loyal, the strong, Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy and the beautiful horses that inhabit our psyche. Carl Jung’s archetypal formulations of animals are analyzed in detail by Hannah (1992) and include the horse as a symbol of the power of human consciousness , a symbol of time, a metaphor for the process of individuaton, and nally a symbol of the entire world. She goes on to actually diagram the various archetypal aspects of the horse: Worker/Bolter, Helper/Victim, Imparter of Vitality and Destruction, and ESP/Panic. In conclusion, she reminds us of “the great danger of not being in connection with our horse instinct” The use of a group approach for children and adolescents is supported by developmental psychologists such as Erik Erikson and L. S. Vygotsky.
Both hold that the best vehicle for childhood psychosocial growth and development is social interaction. Erikson (1963) theorizes that social interactions in uence the success with which children negotiate traumas and crises at each developmental stage. He believes that each successive stage is in uenced by the acquisition of strengths at the stage that pre- cedes it. The primary developmental crisis, trust vs. mistrust, involves the quality of the parental relationship. If a sense of trust is created by the parents or parental gures, the child develops a healthy personal and social identity which then prepares the child to navigate the stressors associated with subsequent developmental crises of childhood: auton- omy vs. shame, initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, and identity vs. role confusion. Vygotsky (1962) contends that the development of thought is determined by language and the sociocultural experience of the child. He explains that children grow intellectually through feedback from their environment. Therefore, all signi cant others such as teach- ers, peers, and parents have an enormous impact in assisting the child to expand and modify existing cognitive structures. Vygotsky particularly emphasized the signi cance of language as a social means of thought, which is role modeled, practiced, and reinforced during group therapy Several resources assist with practical considerations associated with vaulting programs. The Equine-Facilitated Mental Health Association (2000), a specialty section of the North American Riding for the Hand- icapped Association (NARHA), has developed standards for facilities offering equine-facilitate d psychotherapy. While these do not provide speci c suggestions for therapy techniques, other parameters for termi- nology, facilitator credentials, assistant training, participant screening, safety guidelines, emergency procedures, and clinical documentation are helpful. NARHA has also recently approved therapeutic vaulting stan- dards for eld-testing (Haartz, 2000). These standards primarily provide guidelines for technical aspects of a vaulting program: proper equipment, footing, horse type and training, and facilitator skills and preparation.
The American Vaulting Association (AVA) oversees competitive vault- ing in the United States and is an excellent resource for materials (see e.g., AVA, 1998) related to technique, teaching, and safety in all aspects THE HORSE TIME MODEL
The decision to treat children and adolescents in groups at Horse Time is guided by both practical and clinical considerations . In general, it is much easier logistically to facilitate a vaulting experience for a group than an individual. For example, many participants learn better through having the opportunity to watch others and they do not tire as easily because they are taking turns. Because they are working as a team, the process of getting the horse ready is much quicker and easier and preparatory stretching exercises are more enjoyable. Group members can help each other on and off the horse, spot each other, and can eventually perform doubles and sometimes triples moves with All of these elements of Horse Time group require communica- tion, teamwork, and trust—not only in the horse, but also trust in the therapist, their support staff, their peers, and, most importantly, trust in themselves. Additionally, developing a relationship with a horse helps to teach caring and empathy. Indeed, vaulting is best facilitated as a group activity, which may be a shortcoming of this technique in terms of its integration into other treatment settings. It would not be appropriate for clients who are not medically, psychiatrically, or be- haviorally able to participate in a vigorous activity in an outdoor A major bene t of therapeutic vaulting is motivation. As clinicians are all aware, the best treatment plan will not be effective if the client is not motivated to participate. If there are any dif culties in a vault- ing group therapy session, natural consequences, such as missing a turn vaulting if they were not paying attention, effectively replace tra- ditional time outs. Horse Time clients have been so motivated that several have even joined a competitive vaulting team and competed successfully at the national level. One such young man, who had pre- viously been in a gang, said “vaulting is more fun than getting in Vaulting is a very structured experience, which helps many clients with organizational skills, spatial relations, and body awareness while Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy satisfying the need for excitement. As previously described, the vaulter is not responsible for directing or controlling the horse while mounted.
This results in signi cantly less frustration and power struggles when compared with riding lessons, and greatly enhances the likelihood of clients being able to independently participate in mounted activities. The authors have noted that the novelty of vaulting enhances the “prestige factor” with clients’ peers and decreases chances of the clients having had previous negative experiences with the sport.
From a symbolic perspective, the con guration of vaulting places the therapist at the center, literally connected to the horse and vaulter. The horse, actually functioning as cotherapist, provides a living foundation for the client’s growth and development. The horse interacts with the client in a very physical way, which the therapist cannot. The circle, the pattern repeated throughout the group in opening circle, stretching, vaulting, and closing circle, is the universal symbol of wholeness and Why horses? Working with horses as cotherapists is a very deliberate decision in equine-facilitated treatment. Ideally, the horse and human therapists have a close relationship based on mutual trust and respect.
Both know what they can expect of the other. At Horse Time we work with horses of different ages, breeds, sizes, and sexes as a matter of prac- ticality but also to offer a variety of opportunitie s for transference. As discussed earlier, many clients have powerful responses to the “big black horse” or “magic white pony.” In addition to their archetypal energies, however, there are other unique attributes of the therapy horse. They are prey animals, not predators (unlike cats and dogs, who typically func- tion as cotherapists in other types of animal-assisted therapy activities).
Many clients can relate to the horses’ instinctual hypervigilance and ten- dency to ee when afraid, and many are relieved when they learn horses are vegetarians and are not interested in eating people! Because of this biological programming, they also offer immediate, unbiased, nonver- bal feedback and they do so in a big way. When they “mirror” body language and feelings back to a client, it is hard not to pay attention to it.
Horses are, by and large, naked and unashamed. They get dirty and eat off the ground; they are hairy and, at times, sweaty and breathing hard.
They relieve themselves when they need to, their genitals are visible, yet clients can safely physically interact with them on a fairly intimate basis (wrap their legs around them, brush them, hug and kiss them) at a Horses also provide unconditiona l positive regard. There are unen- cumbered by ego issues, and they are not judgmental. Horses do not know or care if you are small for your age, have crooked teeth, have no friends, have messy hair or failed your spelling test. Additionally, working as a partner with the horse allows the human therapist a chance to role-model safe, respectful, yet rm and consistent limit-setting as well as advocacy for the horse—behaviors many of our group members are not accustomed to seeing adults exhibit.
A typical children’s group at Horse Time includes clients that are 7–10 years old. Although chronologica l age is a consideration, devel- opmental level, intellectual functioning, physical size, and psychoso- cial issues also are factored into decisions about group structure and goals. We have enjoyed greatest success when the group is relatively heterogeneous in terms of speci c diagnoses, ethnicity, and gender, but the members still share some other aspect of their lives (e.g., they are all in foster care, residing in similar residential treatment settings, re- ceiving outpatient mental health services, or are all dealing with anger management, grief, school problems, or other similar challenges). Group members are carefully screened through a comprehensive application packet including medical, mental health, substance use, developmental, social, and legal information. Medical and behavioral precautions and contraindication s are screened for by a registered nurse familiar with the program, and additional information is obtained as required.
The length of each group session, the number of times a week the group meets, and the total number of times the group meets are all deter- mined before the group starts based on the treatment goals and special needs of the group. The group is offered as a closed group, with all par- ticipants expected to attend each group meeting. The typical schedule for a group of 7–10-year-olds is a one and one-half hour group per week for 8 to 10 weeks. The group is facilitated by a licensed psychothera- pist assisted by specially trained assistants. Typically college students studying a health profession, these assistants are trained in con dential- ity guidelines, safety rules, and behavioral intervention. They are asked to commit to consistent group attendance and are offered the opportu- nity for informal clinical supervision. They are aware of the children’s individual and group goals and are asked to assist with group activities such as snacks, stretching, spotting vaulting moves, helmet- tting, and One of the most clinically helpful aspects of vaulting is its inherent structure. With the addition of an opening and closing circle, the classic vaulting practice routine can be applied in its entirety (see Table 1) At Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy TABLE 1. Bene ts of Vaulting as Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy
encourages planning,nurturing, and self-care ducking under thelongeline, observinghorse’s movementand temperament a faster, more dif cultgait as they are ready TABLE 1. Bene ts of Vaulting as Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy
Take turns walking Horse is allowed to drink at Take turns carrying A whip is used as an audio- Thanking the horse, Group members are taught the end of the 8- to 10-week group, members perform a graduation exhibition for friends, family, foster families, and caseworkers and re- ceive certi cates and T-shirts. For some, this is the rst time they have been able to convene their signi cant others for a happy, positive event During actual psychotherapy groups at the farm, members were noted to appear more comfortable with the environment and the animals over time. Interestingly, the children became trusting of the horse they con- sistently worked with, but most were still not sure all horses were trust- worthy. In general, they did demonstrate less fear of other horses but remained cautious and (as requested) asked if they could pet unfamiliar horses. This can be seen as appropriate threat appraisal and help-seeking behavior, especially desirable in the children who had been abused by Most clients became very invested in the structure of the vaulting session. They never complained of boredom and, in fact, were quick to point out any deviation from the routine, for example, missing their snack, or the horse not being given an opportunity to drink from the trough. It was noted that the foster children, who have generally led chaotic lives with too many unwelcome surprises, may particularly crave order and consistency in their lives. Clients loved the responsibility of Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy giving “leg-ups” (a boost to assist with mounting) to peers, which also required earning the trust of the peer they were helping. Conversely, clients being given the “leg-up” sometimes initially refused to be helped by a peer, preferring the help of staff. By the end of the group, however, nearly every child had widened their circle of trust and was able to expand the list of people they trusted to support them in this way. Group members were very proud to be able to carry the whip; even if they initially could not handle that responsibility they eventually were able to carry it quietly and correctly. Collecting and carrying helmets back to the tack room was a coveted job as well.
One group struggled with the responsibilit y of transitionin g to a younger, more responsive horse from an elderly school pony. Although reminded that they had earned the privilege to work with the new horse, the group was not sure that they could handle the new horse, who picked up on their behaviors and energy level and would become dgety and distractible if their own behavior escalated. The group members, who ultimately decided they could meet this challenge, reminded themselves and each other to be quiet and move slowly for the bene t of the younger, The group participants’ interpersonal interactions and relationship development with peers, group assistants, and the human therapist were notable as well. Group members wondered out loud if our college stu- dent assistants were in foster care, as they were separated from their families and had to share a room with people they did not know. The children asked if they missed their families and if it was hard for them to be away from home. Some siblings in the group were in separate foster homes and rarely got to see each other, especially in the context of a fun activity. Members became upset if their sibling did not attend a group. Siblings also tended to choose each other as doubles partners in vaulting. Peers shared perspectives on being in foster homes, as they discussed self-generated topics such as “do they treat you like one of the family?,” “do you have your own room?,” “do they take you when they go on vacation?,” and “how many times have you moved?” Group members were exposed to their therapist drawing a parallel between childcare and horse care as she framed wiping the horse’s nose, brushing, and feet cleaning as necessary, though sometimes unpleasant tasks that must be done for beings that cannot totally care for them- selves. Clients were exposed to the give and take of the therapist-horse relationship. While the therapist actively advocated for the horse (for example, “we cannot go faster because he is tired now”), she also made the horse do things for his own good. For example, one young horse named Scotty had to be moved to a wooden paddock to prevent him from escaping from the wire fencing so he would be safe. In turn the group members were then seen demonstrating empathy for the horse by asking if a certain vaulting move would hurt the horse, noticing if the horse was hot and sweaty, and brushing ies off of him.
The children often saw their own lives, issues, and feelings re ected in the lives of their horse friends. When a new horse came to the farm and was placed in a paddock with a horse of the same breed, a group of foster children decided that the two horses were biological siblings now happily reunited after extended stays in separate foster homes. The group members were often more verbally expressive with the horse than with each other or the staff. They praised the horse, shared their behav- ioral expectations of the horse, and were never observed saying unkind or negative things to the horse. One child was having great dif culty dis- cussing an upcoming move to a different foster home. She was, however, able to offer many suggestions for how to help a horse that was being sold feel more comfortable in his new environment. To further reinforce the embedded therapeutic metaphor, it was explained to the client that the horse was being sold so that he could get more attention in his new As clients became more comfortable in the farm environment, they were noted to be appropriately physically affectionate with both the horse and the staff. Even boys who were seldom seen expressing physical af- fection with humans were observed hugging and kissing their horse.
Occasionally mild physical aggression between peers was seen, but sel- dom with the staff and never with the horses. Participants demonstrated improved posture and body awareness during the series of groups. Girls who had been sexually abused, who had the most dif culty relaxing into a sitting trot on the horse’s back, seemed to bene t from the unique biofeedback mechanism provided by the moving horse. When they were tense, they bounced, then the horse tensed his back muscles in response, then the client bounced even more, and so on. When they relaxed they reversed that cycle. Off the horse, clients developed improved behav- ioral self-modulation: they remembered to talk quietly and walk instead Part of the farm experience’s therapeutic potential lies in its unpre- dictability. It is by no means a sterile, controlled environment. Groups had to problem-solve around the weather and horse issues such as illness or missing shoes. The “controlled chaos” of the farm invited creativity and trial and error. It provides a “good enough” environment lled with incidental learning opportunitie s such as a visit from the horse dentist, vet, or blacksmith. It offered unforeseen opportunitie s to process feel- ings about death, such as when Misty the horse died. Group members Equine-Facilitated Group Psychotherapy gathered at her grave and asked if the other horses would miss her, if her owner would miss her, and if there had been a ceremony around her burial. They then shared how the death of animals and humans had been Parents and signi cant others share their assessment of the role equine- facilitated psychotherapy has played in these children’s lives: “My kid’s never done anything right : : : until : : : now” (a client’s parent). “When a child was hysterical about moving from one placement to another, the only thing that helped was to show him photos from Horse Time and he calmed down and was able to tell stories about the horses” (a client’s caseworker). “He stopped beating up his brother and started showing him vaulting moves on the back of the couch” (a client’s grandmother).
“This is the most motivating thing in my life” (an 11-year-old client).
A qualitative study conducted at Horse Time explored the experiences of children participating in equine-facilitated group psychotherapy as de- scribed above. Owen-Smith (2000) found that several themes emerged.
Each child discussed the risks in vaulting and their trust in their horse as well as their experience of the horse as providing a signi cant source of approval, acceptance, and affection (despite their initial assumptions of the horse’s malevolence). Owen-Smith postulates that this sense of being valued by a nonjudgmental other appeared to be related to the experience of feeling safe with the horse. This in turn appeared to be linked to constructive risk-taking in a cyclical relationship.
Other major themes that emerged in Owen-Smith’s (2000) study were the children’s descriptions of the movement of the horse, talking with the horse and the feel of the horse in both grooming and mounted work.
Owen-Smith invites us to consider the metaphorical meaning embedded in the children’s experiences, stating: “The horse may have provided a fantasy that lifted the children up and carried them forward” (Owen- Smith, 2000, p. 11). One child described the experience of vaulting as “sort of like ying.” “I can y,” she said, (making reference to her therapy horse, Angus), “because he has all of his big feet on the ground” For many of the children interviewed, especially those from abusive and violent homes, there appeared to be a particular sensitivity to a feel- ing of comfort in the presence of strength. Expressions such as “rocking back and forth,” “ ying slowly,” and “walking high” were commonly used by the children to describe their mounted experiences at Horse The emotional tone of the children’s language as they discussed touch- ing the horse was strongly suggestive of empathy, yet many of these children had a history of antisocial and asocial behaviors. Owen-Smith (2000) points out that the children participating in her study seemed to experience a qualitative difference in human-animal interaction as compared to interactions with other humans, which are typically condi- tional even in their most ideal state. Owen-Smith suggests that placing adults in the role of initial mediators for children who have been violated and greatly harmed by adults is an assumption that merits rethinking.
For these children, nonthreatening interactions with adults might be a In conclusion, therapeutic vaulting offers a unique opportunity for experiential group psychotherapy experience. Participants are able to address developmental, personal, and social needs in the context of a somatically engaging, challenging, and enjoyable activity. However, despite compelling testimonials and the growing popularity of equine- facilitated psychotherapy, the lack of quantitative evidence may limit its acceptance by the mainstream American medical community and ac- cessibility to consumers. Both because this treatment is unique among animal-assisted and experiential approaches and because preliminary research, while promising, has yielded little quantitative evidence of bene t, the following steps are suggested to further its investigation .
First, the papers available in Italian, French, German, and other non- English languages need to be translated and systematically reviewed for implications for treatment and further research. Guided by this body of data, qualitative studies across a variety of treatment settings and with a variety of clinical populations and types of equine-facilitated treatment are suggested as a means to provide a broad-brush portrait of the phe- nomenon. Next, ndings from the qualitative studies can be categorized and a national or international research agenda can be established. In that context, EFP’s bene ts can then be captured in focused, multisite quantitative studies with a greater chance for suf ciently sized study populations, successful design, enhanced interest from scholars and universities, and increased funding opportunities . As nurses continue to look for new and better ways to promote psychosocial healing and growth, the potential of equine-facilitate d psychotherapy will continue to warrant further exploration through both clinical practice and research.
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Source: http://www.psicoterapiaequina.cl/pdf/Equine%20facilitated%20%20group.pdf


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