This blog post is part of a series exploring the value and benefits of spending time with horses and other animals, including within a therapeutic environment. Previous posts have introduced the series and provided a brief overview and discussion of the research in this area.
Many of the people we meet at Healing Hooves have good reason NOT to seek help; not to trust another person. They may have experienced the world and relationships as unsafe places, where those who were supposed to help and care for them hurt or abandoned them instead. Or perhaps they have simply found counselling or personal growth to be unhelpful, boring, and a waste of their time; or something that risks ridicule from their peers.
Other times, a person may be willing – or has perhaps been mandated or coerced in some way – to attend counselling or some other form of support or wellness session, but does not truly engage, participate or trust in the process or the provider. They ‘show up’ physically, but not emotionally.
You may be able to relate. Most of us have been hurt in relationships and have experienced times in our life when we are hesitant to reach out and ask for help. It seems safer to retreat, to say “I’m fine” when we’re not, and to ‘do it ourselves’ when deep down we yearn for someone to be there for us.
Being vulnerable in a relationship is often hard;
sometimes it’s terrifying.
In each scenario we can’t even begin to seek and receive, or provide, help or support unless something provides the motivation and safety needed to show up – both physically and emotionally – despite all the reasons not to.
Horses can be that ‘something’.
In equine therapy the presence of the horses, and the possibilities inherent in working with a horse, can provide the initial draw and motivation to attend, as well as reduce any stigma attached to seeking support. While it is always important to be clear and transparent regarding the nature and scope of the services being provided, we certainly do have clients at Healing Hooves who refer to their time here as ‘horse time’ rather than ‘counselling’. We sometimes even include the names of the horses on our appointment cards!
While riding is rarely the main focus of our horse time, for some equine therapy clients it is the possibility of riding the horses and learning horsemanship skills that creates the initial attraction.
(For a discussion of the implications of incorporating riding into EFW see: Do Clients Always Ride?)
The presence of the animals also presents many non riding but equally engaging options. Taking a dog for a walk, having a horse follow you through an obstacle course, playing with a kitten; these are all aspects of equine and animal assisted therapy which can make sessions a lot of fun, while helping us learn about ourselves and relationships at the same time. At Healing Hooves we frequently discover that our clients do not want to leave at the end of a session!
However, for many of us, riding and ‘what we can do’ does not usually end up being the main, or even the initial, attraction to working, interacting and connecting with a horse. Rather it is the relationship, including our anticipation and perception of the nature and quality of that relationship, that makes interacting and simply ‘being’ with animals so rewarding, and safe.
As noted in our last blog post: Understanding The Research, animals simply seem better equipped than people to provide the conditions – Congruency, Empathy and Unconditional Positive Regard – which many researchers and practitioners believe are necessary for a person to feel safe in a relationship, including a therapeutic one:
“As much as human counsellors and wellness workers may strive to provide and meet these conditions I can’t help but believe that animals, including horses, do this so much more naturally and effectively. Added to this is the reality that many people, especially those who have had challenging experiences with people, are more ready and able to believe and receive these conditions from an animal, than they are from a person. Time and again I meet clients who struggle, at least initially, to accept and perceive the existence of these conditions with and from me; yet they are frequently able to receive and experience them from and with my horses.”
In addition to being key factors in helping someone engage and succeed within an equine and animal assisted therapy session and relationship, the perception and experience of horses as genuine, empathetic and non judgmental may also be what helps a person find the courage and motivation to seek help in the first place.
In time the relationships we develop with horses and other animals hopefully serve to deepen and personalise the initial attraction into a place of safety, self reflection and learning and, where necessary, of healing, recovery and hope. And while relationships with animals can certainly create many opportunities for healing, learning and growth in and of themselves, at Healing Hooves we usually also aim to transfer these factors – including the trust and courage to be vulnerable – to healthy relationships with people, and with self.
But none of that can happen unless ‘something’ initially motivates us to show up.
Our next blog post in this series will explore what we share in common with other mammals, including many of our emotions, and all that we can learn from this. I hope you join us there!
Another great article Sue. I think engaging with animals in therapy can have such profound and healing effects for everyone involved.
It is amazing what adding an animal can do to any situation. Having them present changes to dynamic in a positive way
I find the most untalkative client can become fairly talkative when their hands are on the horse and sometimes even in the presence of them then with me alone..
Oh, this is so true! I have many friends and family members who love to come to our acreage just to spend time with the horse and other animals we have (dogs and chicken). Some of them enjoy coming out to go riding with me, but many of them just want to be in the presence of animals. This principle also carries over to my work as a Child and Youth Care Counsellor when I bring my dog to work; many of my clients show up just to see her! Thanks for another great article Sue!
I have also found this to be true – recently we had someone staying at the family quarter section due to COVID and she mentioned simply being able to brush the horses was such an emotional release for her. I think there is something so different and wonderful about the way people can engage with animals. However, I think sometimes people need help to understand how to safely do this for the animal and themselves.
I’m so excited to get to see you again :-). Yes, I absolutely agree that people often need support to engage with animals in a safe way for everyone. It is so important to have those safety conversations before beginning any work with animals and revisit those guidelines regularly. I also find this to be an incredible source of “in the moment” teaching opportunities for the youth I work with.
I had this great experience a bit ago with this, where a young girl just loved horses and came out. Her smile…was a mile wide all from brushing our older horse. She was just thrilled and so was our horse!
In my own life, I have found horses so healing! I love being in their presence. Learning about how they are healing is so fascinating!
Same goes for me Steph!
Thanks Sue – great articles. Animals, horses, certainly seem to let people know “I’m okay…” Any form of relationship is healing and gives us value through acceptance.
I really enjoy the attachment perspectives in these articles. Animals can be that safe haven and home base for people to feel safe enough to explore and tackle some very painful feelings and experiences, and the connection with an animal can also be a wonderful model for a secure attachment that can be transferred to others, including the therapist, building more secure bonds outside the therapy and with themselves.
That first step is the hardest, to get people to show up and be motivated, so even though we have more to consider in a session with an animal therapist and client, it can also make our job easier when we have such an appealing and intuitive co-therapist 🙂
Well said Shreyasi. I appreciate your comments about the attachment theme in these articles. Seeking support is difficult as it’s hard to be vulnerable. The presence of animals can make it feel slightly less intimidating with the opportunity to work one step removed.
I agree with the above comment. I have observed this time and time again as a former foster parent. Foster children that have some many traumas in their life and not trusting people in their life. Some children I have had in my home have been diagnosed with Reactive attachment Disorder, not securing a strong healthy bond with their parents. These children in and out of different foster homes and struggle to form meaningful connections with people, but have with animals.
It is easy to take the amazing relationships you form with animals for granted when you have them in your life all of the time. I love being able to share see other people begin to experience this.
As many of you have reflected, it has certainly been my personal and clinical experience that animals have the capacity to offer a safe and secure relational base. Within the therapy space, I am ever encouraged during rapport building when clients light up as they tell me about their pets and proceed to show me pictures. Such powerful work! I am so humbled and excited to continue journeying through in this training process.
I always keep pictures of my animals in my office. This provides opportunities for students to engage and relate. I’ve had many students who have reached out to me years afterwards to ask about my pets or remind me of a story I once told. It always amazes me the impact that animals can have on rapport building and maintaining connection.
this sounds great Chloe!
This is so powerful, and I am experiencing it with the client I recently started working with for Equine Therapy. The change from her initial resistance to her being excited to come has a little bit to do with me (at least I hope it does!), but the majority of the impact has come from her time with the horses. I am 100% certain this kind of huge change would not be possible without the help of my equine partners.
true – but remember you have facilitated that connection and created enough safety for it to arise. That part matters too!
Another great article that reiterates what I try to reinforce to myself so often – this work is powerful and many don’t know what we have (connection with animals and living in nature that is accessible everyday) and clients don’t know until they experience the connection for themselves.
In reading this article, I’m reminded of the significance of being diligent in protecting our client’s vulnerability when offering equine facilitated care as their guard is often quickly lowered through their heartfelt connection with horses and rhythmicity. A time when I was volunteering with our riding program for children/youth with disabilities, I was leading a horse with a mounted autistic youth. This youth avoided eye contact during our grooming and kept his distance to the offside of our horse, yet when we started the rhythmic movement of riding, he very quickly shared with me about his nightmares and suicidal thoughts. In that moment, I was relieved to be a mental health therapist, prepared to offer immediate support to him and his family.
YES! this is so important, and so often over looked in this field, so thank you for bringing this up Aprille. As much as one of the benefits of AAT is that it helps people feel safe to engage and connect – it can also lead to too much happening/ too much being shared, too soon – and sometimes before enough context and safety has been established. And then it becomes our responsibility to be able to respond appropriately, keep people safe, and keep things within a safe context – and sometimes to try to slow things down. We actually have a whole section about the risks of this in our Focus training but I’m realising it may be good to add something within this article. Thanks for making this important point!
I easily relate to spending time with animals being sometimes more beneficial for self than spending time with people. And now learning more on this subject it’s really interesting to understand the many areas of benefit, i.e., physiologically, in brain development, for a few. It’s also rewarding to observe this in others as I see the progress in our riders, i.e., becoming more communicative and social with ‘their’ volunteers and other riders, in their 10-week sessions.
Animals provide us with a profound opportunity to connect to something greater than the self. For those who are struggling to find connection, as you write here, animals can make it safe to show up and be vulnerable in the presence of another living being. Sue, if you can, do you have any reading recommendations on Equines or AAT Greif Therapy?
we actually have a story coming up in the course which can we drawn upon when working with grief and loss. You can view a reading of it here:
Join author Sue McIntosh as she reads “Holding on” featuring the animals of Healing Hooves in Alberta Canada. This story explores how to ‘hold on’ to those we love when we can’t be with them physically. It is grounded in attachment theory, developmental psychology, and the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld. It can be used by parents, teachers and professionals to support children struggling with grief and loss, separation anxiety or change. It is also a simple fun story which can be read to any child!
So important to helping us develop attachments.
I have known many clients who struggled initially due to feeling like it was not safe to “show up”. I have also worked with many clients who, as mentioned in the post, would show up physically but not emotionally and I like the idea that that horses could to create that motivation and provide a safe space for clients. I am eager to see this in action in the future as I think it could be very remarkable for clients.
Yes, I love the deep dive Aprille acknowledges with the “space opening” animals can welcome or trigger, for sharing that may not be expected by the support person and even intended by the client. This really speaks to the EFW parameters, scope of practice and planning that is so vital to consider in our approaches, sessions, support and follow ups.
I agree – so many pieces to consider in this. Entering into this work comes with great potential but also great responsibility
Thanks for this post Sue. I have experienced youth, who want and need to be around horses, develop an aversion to going to the barn due to expectations from riding coaches, parents, etc… sometimes they are actually very anxious and nervous about riding, however, they want so much to be with horses that they go anyway. If parents and youth knew that there are other options to be with horses, in unmounted sessions, I imagine this being a very helpful and enjoyable option. This may be the motivation that is needed for some 🙂
I agree Michelle! This is where bringing in the considerations around what makes something ‘play’ or ’emotional rest’ rather than ‘work’ could be very helpful. Rarely is a competitive show barn a place of true play or rest!
Thank you Sue. This is why I feel that EFW work could be so affective with teens that ‘hate counseling’!
I’m always amazed at how discussing animals and our experiences with them provides a safe space for people, even strangers, to be vulnerable with one another!
Thanks for articulating this so well. This helps to explain the motivational benefits of partnering with horses when working with clients in the forensic mental health system.
you’re welcome Amanda – I’m glad it was helpful!
Great article Sue! As mentioned, I see this weekly during our therapy dog visits with high school students. You can’t imagine how many times I overhear “This was the reason I came to school today.” Animals have the ability to create safe and trusting spaces, the building blocks of healthy relationships, healing and growth.
That is so great to hear Amy, I bet that is so rewarding to hear kids say that
Great article. “Sometimes we need something to motivate us to show up” I like how animals can do that and are very good at holding space for us to just be.
wise words here Johanna – “Holding space for us to just be” – I agree that this is what horses are so good at providing for our clients (and for us) and great models for all of us in how we can show up for other people (and then for our horses too!)
Such a good article. I had my dog in session with my this week and the smiles! One girl smiled for the first time in three sessions, I asked her about the smile and she said “the dog, I love your dog!”. They certainly do hold a space, or open up an opportunity.
Thanks for the article, Sue! I remember as a child, when my family visited new friends, my first question was always, “Do they have pets?” It definitely motivated me to show up!
You’re very welcome Andrea! And yes, I can echo that – after just returning from a few weeks in the UK staying with various friends and family members I can definitely say that staying in homes with no pets felt very strange. As much as I loved our trip it was so comforting to come home to our animals here!
This is great, animals are amazing motivation, and a comfort to those not feeling into the idea of healing yet. A sense of an ally maybe to?
absolutely! In foundations training we explore the sense of belonging and loyalty within an attachment framework and the sense of having an ally in the horse definitely fits there!
The sentence ‘ Horses can be that something’ just made me think that maybe clients come into a session not knowing what they want or how they are feeling, what they are looking for but the horses have their way of bringing all that to the surface over time
so true Jody!
When clients arrive at my farm for a session, I will ask where do you want to go today? The majority of the time, the client will say “the barn to see the animals”. This is where the session starts, sitting with the animals, saying hello and grooming while we catch up on what has been happening for them since their last session. The animals create the motivation and initial sense of safety, then it can transfer over to myself as we move the next location, the clubhouse where there are cats and a bunny to provide continued support.
this sounds like a wonderful environment, and invitation
I love this! I actually just had a client who has been doing online sessions for sometime ask to come back to in person because he misses seeing the dogs. I love how just having animals present softens people and motivates them to keep coming back. Julie I really enjoy your comment of allowing clients to determine where sessions start and to catch up over cuddles and grooming with the animals! I would like to try and incorporate this myself if I can.
I completely agree. I think even just being in nature-existing with the animals brings so much positive to people. Never mind clients-my family members want every family gathering to be at the farm since I moved out here-just to soak up the environment.
I agree Natasha! Simply inviting our clients (and others in our life) into a restful natural environment can be incredibly healing all in itself – the biophilia concept in practice!
As a counsellor, we work hard to be aware of our implicit bias that may be preventing us from providing our clients unconditional positive regard. I believe the organic way that an animal shows up without bias provides that genuine space to just ‘be’ without fear of judgement.
I work with several groups that are mandated to participate in a day at the farm with our therapeutic horses. Showing up, and being with horses who are simply, “there” doing their horse business, with no agenda or outcome driven activity is often powerful enough to inspire a moment of authenticity that can lead to transformation.
Mandated work can be challenging – good for you Jason to be able to create an environment that invites some authentic moments despite the extra challenges that come with the mandated aspect!
Well said Jason. I think this is one of the most powerful aspects of having an equine co-facilitate a meeting. I find that no matter how hard I try to suspend the “agenda” when meeting mandated clients in particular, a horse will always be able to do this better. In my future practice my intention (though I expect I will overstep at times) is to let the horse take the lead in this aspect as they are the master.
I love that horses/animals can increase motivation for clients to attend therapy, in addition to providing a relationship for vulnerable folks. I am thankful to the horses/animals who are able to meet the vulnerable and hurt where they are at, so clients might find a safe space to begin to heal.
I can understand how it can be easier for a person seeking help to approach an animal rather than a therapist or other professional, especially clients whose trust has been repeatedly broken by people around them. You emphasise here the importance of the relationship with the horse in EFW, and that makes sense to me, since it has been proven that the same is often valid for human-human therapy. In research asking clients about their therapy, many of them said the relationship with the therapist was the most important thing, indifferent of the approach or style of therapy offered.
I so agree with you here Jane! I remember being taught this in grad school – That the research showed that the quality and safety of the relationship accounted for at least 60% of the success in therapy. And in EFW there are so many more relational aspects (and relationships) to factor in with the inclusion of the horses in the team.
I think being around animals gives us opportunities that we might not be comfortable exploring
or showing. . We can be silly, playful, we can give and receive affection. For many of the individuals I work with, the animals feel safer for them to be around, they also provide a “buffer”can help challenging conversations seems less onerous and are non judgemental, just happy to be there!. That’s powerful stuff.
I can relate Sue! There is such power in an animal’s way of just being there and creating the safety the clients need.
Really enjoy how motivating just “being with the horse” can be- the children we work with often show up early, help poo pick, muck out stables just to be near these engaging animals. And can definitely relate to animals often being more appealing to spend time with than people, especially when clients have been let down by significant others in the past.
I think that introducing a relationship with animals is a great way to open the door for counselling and accepting help. If creates a safe and nonclinical approach to opening up and healing.