What is Equine Therapy?

Equine Therapy is a form of experiential Animal Assisted Therapy. Other terms used include Equine Facilitated Counselling, Equine Facilitated Wellness, Equine Facilitated Mental Health, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. 

This therapy combines specially selected and trained therapy horses and other animals with humans in a counselling setting and relationship. All of these interactions are carefully supervised, and are designed in accordance with each client's therapeutic needs and objectives. At Healing Hooves we bring together aspects of different fields including attachment theory, developmental psychology, person centered counselling, play therapy, experiential learning, theraplay, AAT, therapeutic riding and natural horsemanship. This results in a uniquely effective form of counselling, drawing upon the human animal bond to foster healing and growth.

Why Horses?

The approach followed at Healing Hooves is grounded in a growing body of research indicating animals are good for our physical and emotional health, well-being and development. These benefits are particularly effective for children and youth. For example, studies show that children who have positive contact with animals tend to have higher self-esteem, are empathetic and nurturing. Further research shows this bond is especially powerful when we are feeling vulnerable, stressed or are facing challenges, loss or major change. Animals can help children express emotions, seek social support and problem solve. This results in developing coping strategies and reducing post traumatic stress reactions.

Our approach is also grounded in the most recent advances in neuro science and attachment theory as reflected in the work of, and taught by, Dr. Gordon Neufeld.

At Healing Hooves the horses are far more than 'tools'. They are a key part of our counselling team, bringing themselves and their innate nature to the counselling relationship. Horses provide genuineness, unconditional positive regard and empathy as a part of their innate nature in a manner us human counsellors can only strive to achieve. Meet the Healing Hooves herd on our Meet our Professionals page.

How Can I Learn More About Working in This Field?

Part of our vision at Healing Hooves is to provide professionals, students, and others interested in getting involved in the field with information, resources and direction in the area of equine facilitated wellness.

Healing Hooves offers independent training workshops recognised by various national certification processes developed independently from Healing Hooves, as per Canadian and international best standards: ISO/IEC 17024.  We also have a publication providing resources, research, program materials and other information as a part of our Exploration Training.

We are also excited to announce that our therapeutic children's stories, which we have been incorporating into the work at Healing Hooves for many years, have been published.  Please e-mail sue@healinghooves.ca for more information or visit our Facebook shop for more information.


What Happens During an Equine Therapy and Equine Facilitated Counselling session?

Sue McIntosh and her staff deliver individual counselling sessions with a team of specially trained therapy horses and other animals. Sessions take place in the indoor or outdoor arena, in the paddock or in the barn. Every session is tailored to meet the specific needs and objectives of each client and can vary greatly.

Sessions may involve specifically designed groundwork exercises with the horses, grooming, riding or simply talking with the counsellor while doing horse related activities. Some sessions involve very little activity and simply focus on just 'being with' the horses.  Discussions may start in the context of the horse and the activity and gradually lead to parallel issues/ learnings in the client's life if/ when a client is ready and able to make this transfer.

Much of the work done during a session is through metaphors. For example, the horse can be seen as a symbol of power. Survivors of abuse can use this as a metaphor for how they feel towards the perpetrator of the abuse. Through simply being with the horse and through various groundwork exercises, the client could work to regain their sense of personal power, control and boundaries in the presence of the horse, which can open the door to experiencing this in other relationships. Other clients, for example a teenage girl with issues around body image, learn about self-care through learning about horse care. In other cases the horse can act as a mirror, providing a client with immediate feedback about how their behaviour impacts others. For example a child who is outwardly aggressive may find that a horse runs away from him/ her in the field. To catch that horse the client will need to acknowledge their impact on the horse, and try a different approach. Other clients just need to be with the horses; to have the opportunity to give and receive safe non-threatening affection and physical touch, through grooming and other simple interactions.

Often we will also work through carefully selected, or specifically written, stories to allow us to work 'one step removed' at those times when a direct approach would be overwhelming and risk doing more harm than good.  A selection of our Therapeutic Children's stories are now available for use by parents and other counsellors.

Who is Equine Therapy and Equine Facilitated Counselling most appropriate for?

For more detailed information please see our page on Key Benefits

While Equine Facilitated Mental Health can be beneficial for a wide range of individuals with a wide range of needs, clients who can particularly benefit from this form of therapy include:

  • Individuals with attachment struggles
  • Individuals who have been experienced violence and abuse
  • Individuals who are not responsive to 'talk' therapy approaches
  • Individuals with anxiety or depression
  • Parent child conflict and relationship breakdown
  • Adults seeking personal development and/ or to explore and heal from past trauma or abuse
  • Parents seeking better relationships with their children.
EFMH is not a panacea. Clients are asked a number of questions before counseling begins to ensure EFMH is going to be safe and beneficial for all involved. Healing Hooves prefers to work with non mandated clients - i.e. clients coming willingly.

What is the Referral Process?

Individuals and families can self refer to Healing Hooves.  Simply send us an e-mail to sue@healinghooves.ca and we will send you some initial intake questions to help both you and us decide whether this program is a good fit for your needs. The next step is a brief phone consult followed by your first session with the horses.  If you have a contract with CFSA or FSCD and are hoping sessions could be funded then the referral needs to come through your case worker.  Healing Hooves is an approved service provider with both Calgary and Central Alberta regions of Child and Family Services.

Who are the Healing Hooves Professionals?

Meet our 'four legged' professionals on our Meet our Professionals page.

Sue McIntosh, MA, CCC is a Certified Canadian Counsellor with a Masters Degree in Counselling. She established Healing Hooves in 2000, and has worked with a number of organizations including Calgary Child and Family Services, Central Alberta Child and Family Services, YWCA Sheriff King Group Home and Family Violence Prevention Centre, Chinooks Edge School Division, Olds FCSS, Sundre FCSS, CCASA, AADAC, and CWES.
With over thirty years experience working with horses, Sue has worked with a number of well-established AAT, EFMH and EAP programs in the US and the UK over the past 15 years. She has additional training and experience in animal assisted therapy (AAT), Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), natural horsemanship and in therapeutic riding. She also works with North American organizations to develop nationally recognized industry standards for training, education, curriculum and certification in the field of equine facilitated mental health. Sue has had numerous articles published and has presented at a number of conferences on EFC and aspects of the human animal bond.