My practice is in reach of
Bath, Bristol, Cheltenham, Cirencester, Gloucester,
Stroud and Swindon
After many years pursuing the craft of partnership with horses, and surveying the different methods of Equine–Assisted Learning and Therapy, I have been offering sessions for individuals and groups, which utilize the particular abilities of horses to challenge, reflect and affirm the qualities and messages which humans (often unconsciously) convey. These sessions are suitable for those wishing to develop the language of conversation with other-than-human life, or to gain more insight into their individual relationship patterns, or who have a connection to horses and wish to develop their relational abilities. Such methods have been found to illuminate fields such as communication skills, leadership, eco-psychology, autism, trauma, addiction, emotional well-being and more.
I sometimes make use of the horses at Heartshore Stables, near Minchinhampton, where I benefit from the collaboration of proprioter and Epona practitioner Dawn Oakley-Smith, and sometimes work at another location near Nailsworth. I offer a short informal initial meeting to anyone interested in this work. A copy of my article How Horses Heal, and other writings describing aspects of my approach, are available through e-mail. A briefer outline is offered below.
Equine-Assisted Process: How it Works
Equine-assisted therapies and learning processes have been receiving much media and public attention which at present is enhancing their credibility. One example is Tracey McVeigh’s Guardian article of 25th Feb, “Not Just Horsing Around…psychologists put their faith in equine therapies”. With this coverage comes a growing volume of personal testimonies as to the far-reaching effects of this approach. Here are four varied examples; first, from a survivor of childhood abuse
”Many people, like myself, experience abuse, many turning to self-harm, drugs or alcohol. I turned to a horse…the relationship with horses can heal the wounds of trauma…I found horses the only consistency in my life. They had power yet didn’t have to use it. Being comfortable in their skins, what you saw was what you got. Through the relationship with horses I learnt that power and muscle doesn’t mean violence or physical skin to skin touch doesn’t mean pain…These were messages I couldn’t learn through traditional therapeutic methods. My journey was slow and took years, but had I been able to find therapy through my horse and an interpreter maybe these learnings could have come quicker and saved a lot of pain.”(1)
Secondly, a young man who struggled through childhood and adolescence with autism and the social exclusion this entailed:
“I was suicidal, hysterical, upset and depressed with the bullying and hate in my life, particularly that aimed at me for having a so-called disability……..As soon as my hand touched Oscar’s mane, I felt all the hurt and pain wash away to be replaced by love and friendship and hope for the future.”(2)
A woman who had felt she was “poisonous to relationships” describes her encounter with a horse during a therapy session;
“I felt I was sinking into the safety of her deeply seeing, softly breathing, alive self…and I felt repaired.”(3)
Lastly, a counsellor who participated in a weekend workshop:
“On woman is crying as she describes the quality of communication between Maud and me. Something about the way I directed Maud without being controlling moves her greatly…..I leave with the memory, in my body, of what it feels like to be really present with the horses, to hold my ground, to be directive and to feel nourished by their spiritual presence.”(4)
Likewise many positive outcomes have been reported on young-offender schemes in the U.S.A., addiction rehabilitation projects in the U.K., and in relationship counselling. Tricia Day, founder of the Equine Assisted Qualifications organization, has described the relief displayed by prison inmates at the simple act of being able to stroke a large creature who shows no malice. How does it work?
A horse can say “yes” or “no” to a human with the full force of half a ton of physical power and ten million years of sharply honed instinct. The animal can flee a human, or harm him in ways leaving no room for uncertainty about the intention; so when they offer willing co-operation, or show pleasure in someone’s company, this carries greatly heightened impact and meaning. And if you’re someone to whom life has repeatedly offered a series of “no’s” – of rebuffs, of betrayals, of disappointments, then the horse’s “yes” has even more meaning.
Explorers in this field have discovered that the range of messages and responses horses offer is vast. The degree to which they can immediately reflect and respond to human mood, attitude - and changes in these - is awesome and very sensitive. They often show the human their unowned anger, fear, sorrow or resentment. When the human reclaims these feelings, allows them and moves beyond them, the horse offers calm and co-operation. When humans whose boundaries have been violated, learn to assert their boundaries, horses show respect and acceptance. They reward clear intention, respect and enthusiasm with agility, grace and power.
We work with horses loose in an open space, so that their freedom to offer powerful response is great. We ask clients to consider that the horses are aware of them and offering them feedback even before we enter the paddock or focus on them. We ask people to become aware of their own bodies, current emotions and pre-occupations, and to be prepared for the horse to offer insight into these at any moment. We guide people to enter the horse’s space and to approach them, noting any reaction from the horse. Here people often register fear, nervousness, longing, sadness. Horses may offer close or playful contact, may suddenly withdraw, may ignore the newcomer, or become suddenly soft and drowsy. Humans may experience rejection or acceptance powerfully, may be re-assured - or propelled into unease and pain familiar from the past.
From this point onwards the client is supported by the facilitator in understanding their own unwitting attitudes and gestures and then trying out alternatives – for instance an aggressive person may be asked to soften their body posture – and the changes in the horse’s response to this is often immediate and profoundly validating. The tasks can then become more and more sophisticated until a partnership, a dance of skill, poise and connection arises – with a horse running, jumping, stopping and turning in unison with the human. This can feel “as good as it gets”, a golden moment of life smiling on someone to whom so far it might only have shown a scowl.
The secret lies in the vividity and lack of subterfuge with which horses display emotions, moods and intentions; their total authenticity. They have no shame in demonstrating deep, mellow relaxation – the lowering of the eyelids, the drooping of the head, the stillness of the legs – or intense alarm - in the sudden lunge towards away from a perceived threat (or towards it with teeth bared). Humans’ reservations also begin to dissolve, and tears and laughter, terror and joy flow more freely in the presence of horses. When we see that the most terrifying horse can become co-operative, the most compliant horse can be panicked, we also see the potency of human attitude and mind/body communication
In his work with autistic children Rupert Isaacson, author of the widely-acclaimed book “The Horse Boy”, established that the motion of the human body on horseback (or even indeed the sheer presence of a horse, for some people) triggers the release of oxytocin in the body which enables the learning receptors in the brain to open. Franklin Levinson, a horse trainer from the U.S. says “It has been clinically documented that that just being around horses changes human brainwave patterns. We calm down and become more centred and focussed…..Horses are naturally empathetic. The members of a herd feel what is going on for the other members of the herd.”(5)
All this counteracts an underlying unease in our society which besets unnumbered individuals and is caused by lack of connection to the natural world – now described as Nature-Deficit Disorder(6). The horse’s undiluted instincts and vigorous physicality restores a sense of earthiness and natural rhythm for which many have been searching for their whole life without knowing that to be the case. A whole missing dimension of existence can be regained.
Many of the relational phenomina which form the bedrock of the psychotherapy process seem to be magnified or are accelerated in equine-assisted process: transference – in which old and restrictive relationship patterns become conscious; corrective emotional experience – in which warmth and approval which have been lacking hitherto are at last received; catharsis – in which repressed emotions are released; the I-Thou encounter – in which there is a mutual and pure recognition between two beings. These are steps on the way to self acceptance and towards increased scope for individual choice of behaviour, an opening of new horizons.
M.A.HIP, DHIP, B.A. (Hons.), Cert. Ed., Dip .Soc. St.
Psychotherapist, equine assisted practitioner
1) Personal testimony used with permission
2) Avent, Charlie (2011) in video produced by himself, 2010
3) Notes written after a session by a client in EAP, used with permission
4) Banning, Nicola, (2012) My Therapist is a Horse, Therapy Today March 2012, BACP
5) Quoted in Tracey McVeigh’s article referred to in paragraph one
6) Louv, Richard (2005) The Last Child in the Forest (London,