It is a process that has come to be known by many different names. Equine-assisted psychotherapy, equine-assisted mental health, equine-facilitated experiential learning, equine-guided education, equine-guided learning, equine-assisted counselling, equine-assisted learning, equine-assisted coaching, and so on… each one representing a slightly different philosophical approach, different practices, different training requirements and standards, and different perspectives. What unites them all is a foundational belief in the ability for horses and humans to learn and grow from one another in beneficial ways.
Horses are prey animals that live in the present moment, without shame or embarrassment for their needs and without blocking their self-protective responses. Like us, they are comprised of a nervous system, a unique personality, emotional and biological needs, including a need for social contact (herd mammals), and a life history.
They are honest, transparent and sensitive creatures that are highly aware of their surroundings and have developed the ability to accurately read and respond to situations and social dynamics by paying attention to their senses. Unlike us, they do not live in their heads and instead live in tune with their bodies and body sensations without panicking about them, bracing against them, or trying to fight them. They have the ability to allow what wants to happen with grace and ease.
“Zebras don’t get ulcers”
It has been said numerous times that wild animals rarely if ever experience trauma, in spite of being routinely threatened. This is for a few reasons.
Because equines and other animals have the ability to allow their body responses to occur without cognitively blocking them (no shame or fear of their bodies), they are able to act out their fight/flight responses and use up that energy, without it getting blocked in the system. If a wild animal goes into a freeze state of self-protection when it cannot fight or flee, it will thaw out of immobility eventually by shaking and trembling all the residual survival energy out of its system until it comes back to being grounded again. Self-regulation occurs organically in a process of spontaneous aliveness in the moment.
Animals living wild or in more natural settings also do not usually experience chronic stress. They experience threats routinely that are short-lived in which they mobilize survival arousal energy and complete their self-protective responses and go back to the task of living, without any traumatic symptoms. Humans (and animals that are routinely confined or abused) do experience chronic stress situations in which they are unable to fight/flee.
Blocking body responses from completing can result in a state of dysregulation – hypervigilance, chronic anxiety, repressed anger, explosive rage, depression, dissociation, impaired memory, social adaptations (such as caretaking, co-dependency, avoidance of attachment, etc.), well as a host of physical/medical symptoms. As a result of losing this ability to self-regulate, humans turn to addictions, self-medicating, self-harm, disordered eating patterns, and other risky behaviours in order to numb pain, manage emotions, and feel alive.
Most people live in a dysregulated state without being aware of it – it is simply their “normal” to be reactive, have big energy, be stressed, or be withdrawn and tuned out. Aside from developing greater self-awareness, the focus of being with horses is to provide a safe container in which to restore and build our innate capacity for self-regulation, which first requires us to be more connected with ourselves.
Horse-human interactions have a lot to teach us about:
- Presence and being in the moment in a grounded way
- Tuning into our felt sense to establish safety and connection
- Being congruent (when our emotions match our intentions, body language and actions)
- Clear communication and flexible boundaries in relationships
- Honouring our needs without judgment
- Finding our voice through choices and empowerment
- Trusting the wisdom of our bodies
- Respecting the messages of fear and anger
- Shifting out of rigid constriction to more gentle softening and flexible allowing
EquuSpirit is inspired by a number of different approaches to equine-guided work and weaves them together within a broader understanding of the neurobiology of stress, trauma, and attachment relationships.
The program draws from the Equine-Facilitated Wellness model developed at Generation Farms in Nanaimo, BC, aspects of the Eponaquest Approach and Adventures in Awareness, as well as the EAGALA model.
From an equine standpoint, the program is founded on the principles of ethology (understanding animal behaviour and psychology) and natural horsemanship focusing on respectful, connected partnership, as exemplified by Tom and Bill Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, Pat Parelli, Ray Hunt, Carolyn Resnick, Mark Rashid and others.
Equine-Facilitated Wellness supports the work we do in Somatic Experiencing, DBT, mindfulness and self-compassion, with animals whose presence can support us to come home to ourselves in a deeper way.