Equine-Assisted Therapy

Equine-assisted psychotherapy is a form of therapy that uses interactions with horses to understand and heal from mental health challenges.

Although equine-assisted psychotherapy does involve being near horses and sometimes touching them, it does not usually involve riding horses. Because of this, it can be helpful even for people who aren’t especially fond of horses.

What is the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?

The Eagala Model is one of the most common models for using horses as part of mental health treatment. It does not include any horseback riding--only interaction with horses from the ground.

Its name is an acronym for Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Eagala is also the name of the organization that developed the model and oversees certification of its therapists.

A core part of the Eagala Model is its team approach to mental health treatment: a horse, a licensed mental health professional, and an equine specialist are always present during Eagala sessions. All three are considered equal members of the treatment team.

What can the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy help with?

Eagala is often used with at-risk youth, but it can also be helpful for people of any age facing a wide variety of mental health conditions. Some of these include:

Does the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy work?

Yes, Eagala does seems to be effective. Because Eagala is a relatively new model, there is not yet a large body of evidence for its effectiveness. However, several preliminary studies suggest that it can be a helpful way for many people to work through various mental health issues.

For example, one study about stress management among college students found that the Eagala model was as helpful as other strategies, such as mindfulness, in helping participants manage stress. Another study found that the Eagala Model helped participants decrease psychiatric symptoms more than other kinds of therapy did, including canine-assisted therapy.

How does the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy work?

In general, equine-assisted psychotherapy is based on the idea that horses can offer unique kinds of insight to people dealing with mental health challenges. This is because of a few key facts about horses:

  • Horses are very sensitive: Because they evolved as prey and have to be able to run away from predators at a moment’s notice, horses are naturally attuned to their surroundings. This means that they pick up on non-verbal cues in humans’ behavior very easily, so they can provide insight into your emotions and how you express them.
  • Horses have a lot in common with people: Horses are social animals, but they’re also unique individuals. By interacting with individual horses or groups of horses, we can practice social skills and gain an understanding of how you tend to behave in situations with other people.
  • Horses are powerful and expressive: Horses are so big and powerful that their behavior is hard to miss--a horse doesn’t hide how it feels about you and your actions, and you’re sure to notice its reactions. What’s more, you can’t bully a horse; interacting with one gives you a way to practice being thoughtful, patient, and calm.

All in all, the idea is that interacting with horses can help you understand how you deal with other challenges and relationships in your life. Essentially, the horse is a living, breathing metaphor for what’s going on in the rest of your life, and it helps you figure out how to approach your unique challenges.

How frequently are sessions held in the the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?

There is no set structure for how Eagala sessions should be held. Often, they occur once a week, but they may be more or less frequent depending on your needs and your treatment team’s methods.

Sometimes, the Eagala Model can include a combination of group sessions and individual sessions.

How long does treatment last in the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?

There is no set course for the Eagala Model. Some people may benefit from just a few sessions, while treatment may continue for much longer in other cases.

How are sessions structured in the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?

The Eagala Model is the most standardized of any form of equine-assisted psychotherapy. Although the progression of sessions may differ from case to case, all Eagala treatment is based on the following core principles that shape sessions:

  1. Sessions are solution-oriented: This means that in the Eagala Model, clients are viewed as the experts on their own experiences and are seen as capable of finding solutions to their problems. Accordingly, sessions are often exploratory and open-ended, with a focus on clients’ creativity and problem-solving rather than directions from the treatment team.
  2. All activities happen on the ground: There is no horseback riding in the Eagala Model. This means that sessions are generally a progression of interacting with horses from the ground. For example, you might start by getting comfortable being near horses, before moving on to touching them and eventually working with them in activities guided by the rest of the treatment team.
  3. The treatment team is central: The treatment team consists of the horse (or horses), the mental health professional, and the equine specialist. All three members are present at every session, and the progression of sessions depends in large part on the plan that everyone develops together. Note that the horses are there simply to be themselves! That is, their behavior gives you feedback on your progress and what you might still need to work on.

What happens in a session typical session in the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?

In general, the client works together with the mental health professional and the equine expert (and the horse!) to decide the activities of each session. There is no horseback riding in the Eagala Model.

Some common activities that might happen in a typical session include:

  • Identifying goals: You’ll usually begin by discussing your current challenges and goals for treatment with the mental health professional and the equine specialist – before meeting the horse.
  • Getting comfortable with horses: Especially at first, you might spend some time just getting familiar with horses and learning how you tend to interact with them.
  • Learning how to guide a horse: Over time, the treatment team may guide you toward certain goals, such as working with the horse to walk in a certain pattern or complete an obstacle course. Looking at the way you approach these problems--and the horse’s reaction to you as you do so--can be a powerful way to gain insight into your emotions and ways of expressing yourself.
  • Observing the horse’s behavior and your own reactions: A key part of the Eagala Model is learning to notice how the horse reacts to you, and vice versa. Because horses are so large and sensitive, it’s easier to spot patterns in your interactions than it might be with other people.
  • Identifying the horse as a metaphor: In some cases, you might explicitly discuss the horse as a metaphor for something else in your life. For example, you might see parallels between the horse and a person in your life. Or you might struggle with a certain activity in a session and realize that the process matches another challenge you’re experiencing outside sessions.
  • Discussion with the treatment team: Talking over your experiences with the mental health professional and the equine specialist is a big part of the Eagala Model. They’ll help you understand what’s happening with the horse, process your feelings about it, and relate it to other aspects of your life.

What should I look for in a therapist for the Eagala Model of Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?

Eagala is somewhat unique in that it requires specific certification for both the mental health professional and the equine specialist. These professionals may come from various professional backgrounds (for example, the mental health professional may be a social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist), but they must always be certified in the Eagala Model.

The Eagala certification requires advanced degrees and preparation as well as specific training in the Eagala Model, so you should only work with a treatment team in which both professionals are fully certified.

You can learn more about this certification at www.eagala.org.

And remember, it’s important that you feel comfortable with the treatment team, too! If you can, take the time to find professionals who feel like a good fit for your unique needs and personality.

New to therapy? Learn about how to find a therapist here.