Equine Assisted Program (EAP) is an effective therapeutic intervention used in a variety of mental health settings, particularly in the treatment of adolescents and as a non-traditional approaches to therapy for at-risk youth.
It combines traditional therapeutic interventions with a more innovative component involving relationships and activities with horses.
Through aspects of these therapies and components unique to EAP, youth can address and alter maladaptive coping strategies and behaviours in a new and challenging environment.
Participation in an EAP program affects the psychosocial functioning of at-risk adolescents between the ages of 6 -18.
EAP is a powerful and effective therapeutic approach that has an incredible impact on individuals, youth, families, and groups.
EAP addresses a variety of mental health and human development needs including behavioural issues, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs.
EAP practitioners through “ground based activities” with the horses provide better opportunities for growth and learning
“Ground work” involves any activity in which the client is not riding the horse. With ground-based activities clients are better able to formulate solutions, because the horse is merely an instrument for this process, rather than the primary focus.
Riding necessitates more emphasis on the counselor’s instruction and direction. Relationship issues and client issues become more apparent on the ground because the client is not as mentally occupied as when on the horse’s back
In an EAP, change does not primarily occur because of a feeling of security and predictability, but because, generally, people are uncomfortable around horses due to a horse’s size and unpredictability.
EAP is guided by treatment plans and diagnoses, and is facilitated by a licensed mental health professional and a qualified equine professional.
The horse professional is primarily responsible for safety and for observing the behaviour of the horse, because the horse’s reaction to the client is as powerful as the client’s response to the horse.
The mental health professional is primarily responsible with the therapeutic aspects of the session, although it should be noted that in practice it is quite common for these two roles to overlap.
The focus is on the process of participating in an activity with horses and the client’s behaviour and response is central. The experiential aspect of EAP allows a client’s behaviours and emotions to surface in a way that traditional talk therapy does not allow.
The client’s interaction with a horse is observed by the therapist and horse specialist.
It is assumed that behaviours that don’t elicit a positive response from the horse are causing similar problems in other areas of the client’s life.
It is the role of the horse specialist to help the client change the undesirable behaviour in an effort to induce a more positive response from the horse.
It is then the role of the therapist to help the client transfer this learning to other relationships.
Children grow intellectually and emotionally through feedback from their environment.
In both EAP and the problem-solving model of change, the important factors are participation by the client in new experiences and the use of therapeutic metaphors by the client and therapist.
The accomplishment of a task involving a horse, despite fear and feelings of intimidation, provides profound metaphors for dealing with other threatening and challenging situations in life.
While the outdoor environment or activities with horses have inherent therapeutic value, this alone does not create a complete therapy program.
Assessment of the current needs and functioning of the client, appropriate diagnosis of the issues, the creation of treatment goals and a treatment plan, and then subsequent interventions are the major distinctions between an outdoor experiential program and recreational or adventure-based therapy.
Likewise, the same characteristics distinguish a horsemanship or horseback riding program from an EAP program.
Most traditional therapies rely almost exclusively on language as a medium for change, which may not be the most effective way to facilitate change in all clients.
Some clients’ verbal skills may not be fully developed or a diagnosis such as attention hyperactivity disorder may make focusing on or responding to verbal interactions a less effective intervention.
The size and power of horses naturally intimidate clients and provide an opportunity to overcome fear and develop confidence. They provide poignant metaphors when dealing with intimidating and challenging life circumstances.
Horses are like people in that they are social animals. They have defined roles within their herds. They would rather be with their peers. They have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods. An approach that seems to work with one horse, does not necessarily work with another.
Horses also provide a wonderful metaphor for human relationships.
Youth are often forced to change their behavior in order to change the behaviour of the horse, thereby taking responsibility for their own behaviours.
Clients can learn the basics of respect, problem-ownership, and maintaining healthy relationships through their interaction with horses.
Through the relationship with horses, people are able to lower their defenses and habitual reactivity and become more receptive to new ideas and behaviors.
Clients must abandon verbal communication, which allows for an acute awareness of their own body and intentions.
Horses are able to show clients their behaviour in a manner that could be taken as mockery if the therapist were to mirror the client in the same way.
Horses foster change and provide healing by responding to sensory and somatic experiences in a way therapists Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy cannot.
Quite simply, because a horse’s communication is non-verbal, humans are encouraged to confront and effect change in a powerful and non-threatening way.