I was recently interviewed for a capstone project by a Cazenovia College student. I thought I would share the interview here in case it helps others understand what we do here at the farm and how it helps people. This may answer some questions you didn’t even know you had! Enjoy. – CLM
Q. What is your profession and background?
I am a mental health counselor, life coach, and equine behavior specialist. I have a Master of Science in Counseling specializing in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. I also have a Bachelor of Science in Education and an A.A.S. in Equine Science. I taught horseback riding and driving lessons on my own farm from 1987 – 2002 and taught elementary school from 1990 – 1995. Currently I have an office in Cazenovia for life coaching/counseling and offer classes in transpersonal subjects, and I also offer equine-assisted sessions at my farm in Chittenango, where I have 5 rescued horses (and 4 Nigerian dwarf goats). I have my NY certification in Substance Abuse Counseling (CASAC-T), I am a certified clinical trauma professional (CCTP), and a certified hypnotherapist (CHt). Recently I have started to offer mental health and substance abuse counseling at another office in Syracuse.
Q. What is your experience working with animal assisted therapy?
I am credentialed through EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association), which is considered the gold standard for equine-assisted psychotherapy practice. I am also trained through Natural Lifemanship, which is specifically trauma-focused equine-assisted psychotherapy (TF-EAP). I also have a Post-Masters certificate in Equine-Assisted Mental Health from Prescott College (15 credit hours and a 200-hour field experience/internship beyond the Masters requirements). I have co-facilitated group and individual equine-assisted sessions at Horse Sense of the Carolinas (in Marshall, NC), notably a 4-day female veterans retreat and an in-patient detox group. I have both trained at and co-facilitated sessions in equine-assisted psychotherapy at a facility in Sand Point, Idaho. I have designed and facilitated spiritual group mini-retreat experiences at Rivendell Farm (my farm), and I currently facilitate individual and group equine-assisted sessions there as well.
Q. What are benefits you have witnessed from animal assisted therapy?
I can’t speak to any other animals used in psychotherapy and I can’t speak to physical therapy with horses. (We should be specific if we are talking about psychotherapy, because there are several different therapies done with animals and not all of them have to do with mental health.) However, equine-assisted psychotherapy has been proven effective in the amelioration of several mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, childhood/complex trauma, dissociative identity disorder, grief, alcohol and substance use disorders, eating disorders, etc.
As far as benefits I’ve seen personally: the client seems to immediately trust the counselor because the horses demonstrate that they trust the counselor. I think the client is put immediately at ease because if the horses like the counselor, then they are more willing to trust the counselor as well. People who like animals are also more at ease around animals than people (and around other animal people), very often, and so the presence of the animal, in our case a horse, helps to alleviate much of the anxiety the client may have toward the counselor (as a human). I have seen the mere activity of brushing a horse — or touching or petting or hugging a horse — somehow help the client relax and become more willing to talk to the counselor in an easy and open manner. Also, the ability to be able to have appropriate physical contact with another being is soothing to the client, because human beings are often starved for touch and can be frightened by touch from another person, especially if there is abuse in their traumatic past. The animal poses no such threat.
With trauma-focused EAP, I have both experienced and witnessed cross-brain connections being rebuilt (or built for the first time) in the relational model of Natural Lifemanship that helps the person come out of their reactive lower brain and work from their neocortex, or their thinking brain. Cross-brain connections are important for self-regulation. A fully connected brain is a fully functioning brain that can see options other than fight, flight, or freeze. When a person has been traumatized, they tend to revert to their lower brain regions and the neocortex goes offline. In building the relationship with the horse (who is a prey animal that also works mostly from their lower brain regions: the brain stem, midbrain, and limbic portions of the brain that have evolved for the horse’s survival, and in horses is activated or engaged most of the time), both the client and the horse benefit from the relationship and seem to develop the ability to approach situations and relationships from their neocortex much more than previously.
Horses also teach about setting boundaries very quickly, because there are some horses that don’t respect boundaries, or they have their own boundaries that need to be respectfully addressed. So, the client must learn how to set boundaries and respect boundaries in a relationship in order to have a healthy relationship that is comfortable for both parties. This can then be transferred to any relationship, including those important relationships with loved ones.
And it never ceases to amaze me that the same group of horses can react in a completely different way to two different clients, on the same day and in the same area. They are so sensitive to the energy from the client (that prey hyperarousal) – and from the equine specialist and mental health counselor as well, so we have to be careful to be calm and congruent and try to keep our own energy out of the client’s session. The inverse of this is to help the horse learn to self-regulate by keeping one’s energy calm and congruent and so demonstrate that skill to the client.
Q. What are common limitations/restrictions that individuals may experience?
Some clients have a fear of horses that may restrict them from a desire to do EAP, and in that case, the fear must be worked through first, or they may just not be candidates for EAP. Some clients (elders or combat veterans with physical disabilities, for example) may find the barnyard terrain challenging. Other than that, everyone can participate at some level in EAP. Sometimes a session consists of observing the herd from outside the enclosure. Other sessions could entail mingling in the pasture with the herd or grooming a single horse in the barn, and some of the TF-EAP sessions may include Rhythmic Riding – which is not horseback riding, per se. No saddle or bridle is involved. Clients are mounted on the horse with a bareback pad and led by the Equine Specialist (ES) at the walk. The rhythm of the horse under the client helps them build cross-brain connections that they may not have developed because of past trauma. (Anything rhythmic, that is predictable, reliable, and comfortable will help to build those cross-brain connections.) EAP is easily adapted to a client’s capabilities and comfort level. Riding is not a necessary part of EAP in some models. In fact, the EAGALA model is strictly ground-based.
Q. What are issues that occur with access to animal assisted therapy?
The biggest issue in Central NY is weather. If you don’t have an indoor arena to work in, winter sessions usually don’t happen on a regular basis. You can lose clients that way if they get bored in the office or use the weather as a reason to miss their appointment. Another issue is that the client may have to travel some distance to get to a facility that offers EAP, because it is usually offered in a rural area, at a farm or ranch. There are also very few professionals offering this modality of treatment, so it’s not readily available at this point, especially in Central NY.
Q. Is there any controversy about animal assisted therapy? If so, what is it?
I think the biggest controversy in the EAP world is the fact that facilitators of equine-assisted therapies must hold the appropriate credentials for the therapy they offer. It’s extremely confusing for a layperson to navigate all the equine-assisted therapies that are out there. There is equine-assisted coaching, and equine-assisted hippotherapy that is usually offered by a physical or occupational therapist that is not mental health-focused. I have seen people with no credentials whatsoever offering equine programs to veterans, for instance, and the fact that these programs actually help the veterans in spite of the lack of training of the facilitators speaks more to the healing ability of the horse-human relationship than anything else. Imagine how much more successful an intentional EAP program could be! There is a fine line also between equine-assisted coaching/leadership training (also known as equine-assisted learning) and equine-assisted counseling, and a coach has to be very careful about crossing that line between coaching and mental health counseling (or psychotherapy), because it’s illegal to practice anything that even resembles mental health counseling without a license.
In the counseling world, I think there is also a misunderstanding about “using” the horse as a metaphor in the session. And they say if the session can be run without the horse and get the same result, then why bother to use the horse at all? But as I said above, a lot of times it is the horse-human relationship we are interested in, building that relationship in healthy ways and observing how that relationship highlights behaviors that may have once been appropriate but are no longer working for the client..
A third controversy is the concept from equine behavior specialists that perhaps the horses are not doing this voluntarily, and so the question arises, is it ethical practice from the horse’s perspective? With this in mind, we should do everything in our power to make sure they are happy doing this work and give them a lot of time off because all the emotional sensitivity required can be hard on them. The team must be aware when a horse may be showing signs of stress and give him appropriate time off.
Q. What are your personal thoughts and opinion on animal assisted therapy?
I believe that in the right hands (someone trained to offer the modality), EAP may be more successful than traditional office-based psychotherapy. Some clients that don’t thrive or improve in 20 sessions of office psychotherapy could have a huge breakthrough in the first EAP session (and often do). Issues seem to come up quickly in the relationship-building between horse and client because horses above all recognize when a client isn’t being authentic and a good EAP facilitator will be able to get to the heart of the matter by watching the interaction between horse and client. For many clients, the barn becomes a safe place to try out new ways of being and relating that they can then take out into their relationships with other people. And it’s all about relationship.
Q. Is there anything you would like to add or any additional comments about animal assisted therapy?
I want to add that you can’t take a class in AAT and then hang a shingle as an equine-assisted practitioner (and believe me, I know of people who have done that). Credentialed EAP counselors (or the counseling team of ES and MH) are highly trained in both equine and human behavioral sciences, and then in the combination of both that other psychotherapists are not trained in. It is unethical to offer a counseling modality that the practitioner is not trained to facilitate.