Horses Help with Human Psychotherapy

For equine behaviorist Chris Irwin, discovering equine-assisted psychotherapy was both a confirmation of what he had always known and an open door to the expanding possibilities of horse/human connections.
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For equine behaviorist Chris Irwin, discovering equine-assisted psychotherapy was both a confirmation of what he had always known and an open door to the expanding possibilities of horse/human connections.

I have long believed that horses can be so much more to us then just our recreational partners or pets, that horses are also our teachers. As I said in the introduction to my book, Horses Don't Lie; "Horses have a fundamentally different world-view from us. In many ways, how they see the world and relate to their fellow horses is the opposite of how we see our environment. Because of that, horses have worked out different ways to get along in the world and with other horses. I believe that becoming more horse-like in our awareness of the world and how we achieve our place in it will make us more complete human beings who work and relate well with others, yet know how to stand our ground."

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Well, when it comes to recognizing horses as emissaries from Mother Nature, put here on earth to teach humans about "how to behave", I know I'm not alone because I have read similar statements from the likes of Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt. However, I had no idea there was actually an organized effort from like minded mental health workers in the United States who had taken the concept of horses helping humans to an entirely new level.

Last year I was contacted by a therapist from Ohio by the name of Linda Meyers. Her specialty is in substance abuse/addiction counseling and she contacted me to tell me that she had just read my book and that much of her work as a therapeutic counselor was with horses. She then introduced me to an organization called EAGALA -- Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Much to my surprise I learned that there are hundreds of psychotherapists in the United States who are using horses with clients in therapy!

EAGALA members are using horses in mainstream therapy and introducing them as very powerful tools in working with a wide variety of mental health issues ranging from the treatment of substance abuse, to victims of physical abuse and violent crimes, to eating disorders, to marriage counseling, parenting. Equine Assisted Therapy (EAP) techniques are even being used for corporate communication skills and team building workshops for executives. As I began delving into the growing practice of EAP I soon realized that I am not alone when I say "I don't do magic with horses, horses have done magic with me."

What I've Learned
Let's begin with my own story. Over the last few years, at clinic after clinic, something was beginning to happen that I had only sensed before. People kept coming up to me after a demonstration to say something like "This is amazing. You walked out there and talked about horses for two hours and all I could think about was how it applied to everything else in my life." And whenever I was talking about giving respect to get it and controlling behavior through indirect pressure, some woman in the audience would ask jokingly but hopefully: "Does it work on husbands?" Someone asked that question at every clinic I gave.

Sensing the interest, I responded. I began to broaden the metaphors I used. I talked about how, when we're riding, our mind should be like the captain of a sailboat because the mind of the horse is very much like the wind. Everybody inherently knows that a sailor does not fight with or make vain attempts to control the wind by force but instead learns to become accountable for how well he or she can work with their sails. I began to talk about the relationship between the dance in the round pen and the rest of our lives. And as I did more of this, my audience began to change.

I saw a lot of teachers - in fact, teachers were often the first people to understand what I was driving at. Although it was the same talk I gave to the horse people, the message crossed over to the teachers right away. What they always told me in return was, "It's just like teaching kids!"

Therapists were also now beginning to come to the clinics as word spread that my work with horses was much more about Mind then might. I soon found myself working a horse in a round pen before a group of social workers and their clients, young street kids who were having problems. I asked if any of the kids wanted to get in with me and see if they could establish a bond with the horse. One teenage "tough guy" was clearly shining with desire, so I coached him, and before long he figured it out. He found the right balance of assertiveness and restraint and he was able to control the horse without scaring it. After the session, a TV reporter asked the young man how he'd felt when he'd gotten the balance right. The kid beamed up at him: "It's the first time in my life I've been able to get what I wanted without having to fight for it." (Incidentally, it's now two years later and that same young man is still off of the streets, he's made great strides and he actually has a job working in a horse barn.)

Psychotherapy Connection
It was shortly after this experience that I was introduced to the Equine Assisted Growth & Learning Association (EAGALA). EAGALA dates back to the early '90s and begins with a man named Greg Kersten. Greg is a counselor who used to come to work in a cowboy hat and boots, and some of the kids at the boys camp he worked with used to ask him about where he'd been. He'd promise to take them out to the ranch as a way to reward them for making progress. When he did, he noticed bringing the kids together with the horses always seemed to lead to more progress.

Then he got a call from Lynn Thomas, the director of the Aspen Ranch, a working cattle ranch that is also a youth treatment facility. She hired Greg to work at the ranch, and together the two of them started developing a series of techniques to bring horses together with the people who need their help. EAGALA was born soon after. Today, there are 400 certified EAGALA therapists in Canada and the U.S. - social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and other professionals who have all taken the training pioneered by Greg and Lynn. One American college, Virginia Intermont College, offers a minor in equine-assisted therapy and several other colleges are considering it.

Clearly, some link between horses and the human psyche was surfacing. I've since learned that there is a branch of psychoanalysis, pioneered by Carl Jung, that tries to weave a balance between the outer world of action and events and the inner world of dream, fantasy and symbolism. A distinguishing feature of Jungian analysis is the concept of archetypes, symbols rising from the dark, deep psychic pool of the collective unconscious where humanity's common experience is stored.

Archetypes express a complex of images and emotions that surround the defining experiences of human life. Examples include the Hero, the Divine Child, the Great Mother, Transformation, Death and Rebirth. They are the same for us all, no matter who we are or where we come from. It's as if they are built into the wiring of our brains. And one of the most commonly recurring archetypes is - you guessed it - the Horse.

The Horse archetype throughout the ages has been closely linked with our instinctive, primal drives. Jung thought the Horse's appearance could signify instincts out of control. The horse evokes intense feelings and unbridled passion instead of cool, collected thought.

In many different situations and in many different ways, horses were enabling people to make contact with feelings they'd buried deep inside their shadow. There didn't seem to be any doubt that equine-assisted therapy worked. The question was, why?

Horses, by embodying one of the deepest archetypes in our consciousness, most definitely stir us up. All those things that are buried away or girdled safely up start swirling around in our psyches. Horses can be a direct connection into the unconscious. When we look at a horse, and especially when there's a horse strutting across the pen in front of us, we see the flesh-and-blood incarnation of powerful forces bottled up within us that we wish we had the guts to saddle and ride.

These are the forces that Jung called the shadow self. We know those forces could take us to our dreams and turn us into our best selves. We also know those forces could destroy us. That's why we bottle them up in the first place. And when such hidden feelings are stirred-up and agitated, that's when we have the chance to work with them and learn to control them. Horses give us this opportunity. They do this to us whether we're aware of it or not. But what a powerful tool to be able to use consciously!

Carl Jung also talked a lot about life's paradox, and how important the embrace of seeming contradictions is as we travel the never-ending journey towards becoming fully human. Horses, which can both free us or hurt us, embody this paradox. How we handle this paradox in the arena becomes a metaphor for how we handle it everywhere. Only in this case, it's such a potent and direct metaphor, that we can use it to change our reality. Horses force us to face our shadow selves. Once we do that, we discover much greater freedom, exhilaration and inspiration as we go forward in life.

For more info on EAGALA, visit their website at www.eagala.org.

Author of the Canadian best-seller "Horses Don't Lie", Chris Irwin is an internationally-recognized authority on equine behavior, a University and college lecturer, as well as clinician and upgrading coach for Canadian Equestrian Federation instructors. He is known for his unique approach to non-resistance training for english and western pleasure, jumping, dressage, combined driving, endurance and trail. In 2002, Chris will continue his work with Equine-Assisted Psychotherapist (EAP) practitioners to improve and expand on this valuable therapy tool, and he will move into the field of corporate workshops, using horses as a powerful tool to assist business professionals learn about leadership. Visit Chris' website at www.chrisirwin.com.