A Portsmouth Writer Tries Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

S&C regular and Portsmouth author Christine Lawrence tries out an unusual therapy, bringing together humans and horses to find emotional understanding and healing.

The July sun was burning hot on my neck as we walked through the yard and up the lane to the grazing field. We were going to ‘meet the herd’. I was here for my first session of Equine Therapy and I had mixed emotions. I’ve always been nervous around horses but I was excited and hopeful to be facing my fears. I was also aware that doing so would likely stir up well-buried stuff – my shit, as I like to call it.

You can’t go through life in a state of emotional turmoil and fragility so you need to learn to deal with it, I thought.

No matter how many times you go through psychotherapy or emotional healing, there is always something left you can’t deal with right then. Some of it you work on, release and let go. Some, you just can’t: maybe the time isn’t right, so you patch over it and if stuff does come up, you ignore it or force it down, or blame it on something else.

This is how it had been for me, but then this came up: a chance to experience a new therapy I found intriguing.  I wanted to write about it, so I put myself in the patient’s role – just for journalistic purposes, of course.  But journalist or no, here I was, at an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) session.

EAP isn’t about riding, mucking out stables or any of that other horsey stuff; which is just as well, as I wouldn’t know where to start. I’ve never ridden a horse in my life, even though one of my daughters manages – and lives in – a riding and livery yard.

So what is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)? That’s what I’ve come to find out.

I meet Alex Penfold, my therapist, who is training with Mike Delaney at the LEAP Equine Therapy Centre. Alex is a qualified psychiatric nurse with extensive experience working with mental illness, as well as a competent horsewoman. EAP can be practiced on its own or as an addition to existing practice, and Alex intends to it as an additional medium to help her patients.

She talks me through the EAP journey: a patient is referred and their assessment starts with a phone consultation. An appointment is made for the first session, which takes about 90 minutes. At this first meeting, a full assessment of the patient’s needs is undertaken, including a risk assessment, safety awareness and informed consent to treatment.

‘The first session usually involves the client meeting the therapeutic herd in the field with the horses grazing,’ says Alex. ‘Although other practitioners may work differently to this I feel it is a good way to introduce clients to the therapy, as opposed to direct 1:1 work with a horse at the very first session.

‘The role of the therapist is to facilitate the interaction between human and horse. The facilitator observes the client’s interaction with the horse, and which horse they may be particularly drawn to, [as well as] how the horse responds to the client – observing the horse’s body language.

Horses are masters of interpreting body language and sensing our emotions, tensions and core difficulties and reflecting them back to us – and it is not always easy for us to face what we may not like about ourselves! The client can learn alternative ways of coping and then transfer what they learn to human to human relationships.’

Mike Delaney’s website explains further:

‘Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is a developing treatment in which humans interact with horses in their natural environment as a tool for emotional growth and learning. It is a collaborative effort between a mental health professional / therapist, a horse professional and the patient. EAP is experiential in nature; this means that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, then discussing and processing feelings, behaviours and patterns.

‘…This alternative but highly successful treatment method rapidly breaks down defence barriers, providing immediate cause and effect situations and promoting change from dysfunctional patterns to successful ones. EAP is a powerful and effective therapeutic approach that uses the dynamic nature of horses to address addiction and a variety of mental health and human development needs including challenging behaviour, attention deficit disorder, depression, abuse issues, eating disorders and relationship problems.’

But back to the hot day in July and my own introduction to EAP. We were on our way to ‘meet the herd’.

Alex and I trudged under the trees up a dusty lane, the only sound a tractor in the distance, breaking the silence of the still, summer air. A very large dark brown horse – a mare as it turned out – was watching us over a gate at the top of the path. We made our way nearer. I couldn’t see a herd yet, but one smaller horse rolled in the dust just behind the dark brown mare. I felt like she was waiting for me.

As we got closer still, I saw other horses grazing in nearby fields and another horse in this one, some distance away. None of them seemed interested in me. I’d been assured I didn’t have to go into the field to benefit from the therapy, but I began to think perhaps I could do it.

Alex and I stood at the gate. She asked me how I was feeling; I felt anxious.

Earlier, Alex told me horses see your true self; she said it is part of their survival instinct. Horses pick up on the smallest movement in human body language or the tiniest emotional change. What, I wondered, was this horse picking up from me?

Alex walked me a little further along the path, still on the ‘safe’ side of the fence, but closer to the field. She took me through a body scan. Eyes closed, you move your attention to each part of your body from head to toe, noticing any physical sensations, words, emotions, even colours.

I was happy to do the body scan but I was soon distracted. I could hear a horse moving nearer. I imagined it leaning over the fence. I would open my eyes to find myself face to face with that great dark beast. I relaxed a little when I heard the horse grazing a few feet away, it wasn’t anywhere near me. When I opened my eyes I saw it was the small brown horse, and she was completely uninterested in me. I began to wonder how this process was going to work. Alex had told the whole herd would be a part of the therapy session.

It turned out that the next part of the treatment was for me to move amongst the herd, to see which horse I was most drawn to. The therapist observes the patient’s and the horses’ body language. Alex told me it is usually the horse that picks the patient, rather than the other way round.

I was reluctant to enter the field. Maybe Alex was right, the horse had chosen me – the dark brown mare was still waiting by the gate. We made our way back to her. The mare and I stood still, looking at each other over the gate. That was when I noticed that she only had one eye.

Suddenly I remembered my recent breast surgery and how it felt to lose part of my left breast, including the nipple. I had struggled with no longer being a whole woman afterwards. Now here I was, confronted by a beautiful mare, complete in every way apart from one eye being missing, which I hadn’t even noticed. My emotions welled to the surface. Was the horse telling me something?

I relaxed. I was enjoying my connection with this wonderful creature. My hands now rested on the gate, within reach of the horse’s head. Alex talked me through how I was feeling: checking where the feeling was located in my body and asking me to describe the intensity of it.

Afterwards, we stood in silence for a while. The mare nuzzled into my hands and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of love and peace. I wanted to thank her for this incredible feeling of contentment.

Then, out of the blue, she nipped at my hand. It hurt. Was this a lesson? What did it mean?

I have a tendency to take people at face value; I trust new friends quickly. Was this horse telling me not to be so trusting? It certainly felt like that. The teeth marks on my hand faded very quickly – it was only a little nip and didn’t do me any lasting harm.

In the days that followed my session, a series of old feelings I’d thought buried came to the surface: anger towards people I’d trusted in the past, people I’d considered friends, and done favours, acting as a listening ear when they needed someone. These people all let me down in the end.

I also noticed a deeper understanding of the effect of my surgery, and a growing acceptance of myself as a complete woman again.

My time with the horses acted as a trigger to release emotions I had buried deeply inside. The art of a therapist like Alex is in guiding people like me through the EAP process: to access issues that need to be confronted, and enable healing to take place.

It definitely worked for me.

I undertook an EAP taster session to write this article, but Alex recommends a course of treatment ranging from between 3 to 6 sessions. If, like me, you want to find out more about this fascinating therapy, find out more on Facebook or by emailing equinejourneysUK@gmail.com.