Equine assisted therapy and other forms of outdoor behavioral therapies are known as “experiential” therapies. This is because these unique models of treatment incorporate lived experience in real time. Unlike traditional talk therapy, experiential therapies support clients who may benefit from other forms of learning or processing (other than just talking). With the guided support of a trained clinician, clients can engage in therapy in non-traditional ways – using movement, sensory input, activities, and a sense of “doing.” These methods are important because experience shapes the brain, and our brains shape our experiences. With equine assisted therapy, clients are able to experience working with and riding a horse in real time. Sessions focus on building a relationship with an equine partner, allowing clients to expand their relational skills, communication skills, find a sense of connection, build self-awareness, and increase self-confidence.
An example of the power of experience in equine assisted therapy:
A fifteen year old girl presents to her first equine therapy session as tense, guarded, and unwilling to talk. After given an opportunity to stand quietly with a horse while stroking his neck, her appearance softens and her breathing rate slows. Her body relaxes and she can allow herself to be connected to the horse in the present moment. The reactive, defensive part of her brain has quieted and she is able to tap into more rational, organized and logical ways of being. Slowly, she is able to tolerate talking about how to appropriately groom and care for the horse. She seems to benefit from opportunities to experience a variety of sensory input – the sounds of the horses whinnying, the smell of hay, the whole body sensation of riding and communicating with a horse… All of these lived experiences provide valuable feedback for her, allowing positive therapeutic change to occur. Clinicians will then work with clients to apply these changes to life outside of the therapeutic experience.