Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is not linear – not one-directional…


One of the explanations I often hear in EAP, as to why we have horses in the treatment – is that it is easier for many people to relate to – to build a relationship with a horse (or a dog, or any other therapy animal). In my own experience as a client, that is true, and not…

And even if it is – this topic too, is very complex. So here I am merely sharing some of my thoughts on it.

Yes, a horse can be perceived as less judgmental and more honest, than a human. And you can touch, pet, hug, smell etc. a horse in a way you would never get away with, with a human (this is a deliberate way of expressing it, I am not saying all clients are emotional invasive towards therapy animals – but many come with very big unmet emotional needs of closeness, warmth, affection etc.).

But it does not work like; client meet horse and build a solid and grounded relationship with him, based on trust and respect – and then moves on to transfer that relationship to the therapist and then to other relationships. Of course not – said like that – it is obvious that is not how it works, but it is often how I see it described. Many providers promise lovely relationships with animals – to learn to trust again. But it is – of course – way more complicated than that… and it is really not about the horse... The horse is not DOING anything (besides being a horse - which is the whole point).

Drawing again… using trust as an example, since it is a crucial building stone in relationships.

Trust Steps

Movement through relationship building in EAP.

As a client I did not automatically trust or build a relationship with a horse. Firstly. Building relationships takes time. And it is not one-directional. And here I also need to ask a question… that has swirled in my mind for a while. As a client – you build a therapeutic relationship together with your therapist. But with their animals (or the animals they work with). Do you build a therapeutic animal relationship with them? Has those relationships the same characteristics as the therapeutic relationship you build with your therapist? Same limitations (yes – partly), other “rules” applies – there too? Maybe the animals “in the therapy room” biggest job is to connect what is worked with in therapy to the outer world?

My experience is that the relationship building with the horse (or dog etc), happens like my somewhat childish drawing above of the process. You trust either your therapist, (or one of their animals a little bit), then you transfer that trust to one animal, then you gather some more trust – and you can take that back to your therapist – or another person (or other horse) in the setting. And it keeps on going like that, back and forth. In some point in therapy – you start to take that with you into the world. And then bring what you practice there – also back to therapy. I meet a lot of horses. What I experience with them – I can bring back to therapy, or my life in general. Everything is connected – there is a relational web – and not to forget – how that building of a relational web affect the relationship building you are doing with yourself…

Here – it will also make a huge difference – or it did for me at least – if you, as a client, work with a horse or dog that belongs to the therapist and or the EP – or if they have a close relationship with the horse (dog etc) – or if it is a rented horse on a facility.

I do not know how other people function. But building relationships is exhausting for me. I prefer having a couple of close relationships, then I can have a lot of friends, acquaintances, colleges etc. And maybe also here we as providers in EAP need to be aware of the way a person goes about in this? Is it an introverted client – and extroverted? – An introvert made an extrovert or vice versa (as a survival skill).

Connection or contact is not the same as building relationships, imo. Though of course it is a crucial part in it. But the simplifications in EAP around connection-contact stuns me (which I am sorry to say – but I think part of the problem comes from that many people who provide EAP are themselves horse people and have grown up – or been trained in the equestrian version of equine-human connection and contact).

We also have the western culture paradigm of – if we look someone in their eyes – we are in true contact – because the pretty picture saying goes – the soul of a being can be seen in their eyes… pointing that out - I want to emphasize - connection, or a sense of connection - can look and feel very different between individuals.

For me – it wasn’t easier to build a relationship with an animal. It was easier for me to be with my therapist – and the EP – to work with my traumatic stuff – with a horse and/or a dog present.
In some ways the relationship you build with an animal IS easier, less complex – because they don’t care about all the human mind complexities – so you can rest with an animal in another way (which means – you can also hide behind them… literally and figuratively speaking… - especially if it is a big horse…)

For me – it was hugely important to see what my therapist and EP did with the horse(s). I think I at times focused more on that – than on what I myself did (or do – I do EAP again, as a client).

My trust for my therapist and the EP grew as I could see how the were with the animals. And I could dare to engage with them much better when I wasn’t left to do “metaphorical work” with unknown horses, where I could not see the interaction between the therapist and EP and the horses.

I see how it is easy to think that it is easier to trust an animal than a human – if you have been hurt in interpersonal traumatic situations. For me, it did not work like that. And if you think about it – if we as providers say that trust and relationship can be built with an animal – almost as a proxy for humans, so clients can practice relationship building and social skills etc – with animals – the dark side of relationships will play a role to between clients and animals too.

I feared any living being. Did not trust anyone. I waited for anyone to attack me at any time. Including horses, dogs and so on. There is no automatic trust between humans and animals, no instant relation shipbuilding.
The first step to start to build any relationship, I think – is to feel welcomed, the second one is to feel accepted. That animals helps with. A lot!

My way through therapy with animals present has been moving between the animals and the therapist (and at times an EP) – like a ping-pong ball. And I think that speeds up the relationship building process. There is the possibility of multiple relationships, and the interaction between every being who is present - to watch, to think about, to take part in etc.

This is a very complex topic… touches on many parts of why we work with animals at all – in therapy. I will come back with more thoughts and share my own experiences in this – later on. Please remember this is only my view. But I can’t help to write this – since I do not think many therapists has been a client in these settings. I have (not being a therapist – but a thinking person…) – so I do not have to guess what CAN happen. I know. I am just not finished yet. And I have not sorted all my thoughts, not put them in the right context yet. But most of the descriptions I see about what happens in EAP – does not – at all – or very little – match my experiences of what happens. And often – the focus is on the wrong things (but that is not unusual I think – in studies on psychotherapy – what the therapist deemed as important moments – did not match the moments the clients picked). That does not say there is anyone that is “wrong” – just that there are many perspectives on what happens and what is important in that. This, of course, goes for EAP as well.

And I can’t help adding – since this is also my passion and profession. This is why I do not believe in “models” when working with animals in therapy. How you work with animals need, imo, to be integrated in what you already do as a therapist. And that takes time and practice… we need mentorship programs - more integrated educations - more cross species educations, as I see it. Psychotherapy today is in other areas also moving towards “cross-disciplinity” .

And that is also why we in MiMer offer our trainings – EIT & LP – Equines in Therapy and Learning Programs. My opinion is that we seriously need to level up what we do in our field of animal assisted therapies. We need to stop producing more models – and instead go deeper and develop what we have. AND find out what it is that we actually are doing… if everyone is happy with – who cares – it works… then I get scared… This is why I invest my time into our MiMer trainings. I will keep to offering trainings that strives to be science based, based on best practice, ethics, solid knowledge. And so far, from what I have seen from model based trainings – I want to keep staying on my path of offering model independent trainings. This does not mean that there aren’t very good trainings and models out there. It just means that what I want to offer applies to them all.

And I repeat what I always say in our trainings. Animal assisted therapy – of any kind – can not be better than what the therapist is. Since you – with bringing in animals in your therapy – you are making the therapy more effective – that means EAP is a powerful “tool” – or to get away from that ambiguous/treacherous term “tool” – it is powerful processes you as a therapist are opening up – and speeding up. Please do not take that lightly, especially when you work with interpersonal trauma. It is NOT the role of any animal in therapy to save the clients from the other human’s ignorance in the treatment team of what they are doing. Please educate yourself more. Join in professional networks. Discuss. Question what you hear. Do not blindly follow a protocol in a model. Do not abandon your own thinking. If doing good therapy is hard – doing good animal assisted therapy is even harder. But done good – it is very good – and very effective. Trust me on that – I happen to know that.

Texts and pictures are copyright protected © Katarina Lundgren 2019

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Monday, 26 February 2024