JS Equine Therapies: Horses helping people find the answers from within. By Joe Slattery
In this article I will do my best to describe the benefits of the EAGALA model of Equine Assisted psychotherapy as a therapeutic tool for supporting people to look at their mental health, whether its substance misuse, anger, stress, depression or body issues there is something in all of us from time to time that we find challenging.
Before I go in to the model I feel it is only fair to tell you a little about myself and what brought me on this journey.
As a young boy growing up in Southill, limerick I struggled with low self-esteem and self-worth.
Not believing in my abilities lead me to retaliate in school believing it was a waste of time trying to learn when a life on the dole was all I could see . What was the point? So you would always find me at the back of the class or off out the fields counting the hours until I could go home.
At times southill was a stressful environment to live in. it was a volatile place with a feel of tension in the air that you might find yourself bumping in to the wrong person at the wrong time.
In saying all this I was very lucky in other ways as I always had horses in my life.
They make great companions. I would spend hours at a time just being with them not having to worry about being judged of laughed at. They created a safe space for me to be real, in a world full of false image and bravado. They created a safe space for me throughout those critical adolescence years.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I started to look at myself in a more positive light, liking who I saw in the mirror and believing in myself. At the age of 24 I moved to New York, 10 days before the twin towers attack. This did not deter me from finding myself and exploring what the world had to offer, I stayed in the big apple for 4 years working the buildings and enjoying life. I like to say that I went over a boy and came back a man.
I returned to limerick in the boom years and continued to work in construction as well as setting up my own business. I worked hard and had all the money a single man needed but still felt unfulfilled and on my 30th birthday I decided to sell all my assists and take off again. I spent the next two years traveling around Australia and south East Asia enjoying the relaxed pace, no deadlines no alarm clocks. It was during these period that I decided what I really wanted to do with my life was work with youths to improve their lives and to help them to believe in themselves.
Once returning to Ireland to find the country had imploded. I decided it was a good time to start volunteering and educating myself. As luck would have it I met a man that used to be a youth worker in southill when I was a boy at a funeral and got talking. I told him about what I wanted to do and he informed me that he was now a manager of a project that support families affected by imprisonment and that I could help out if I wanted.
This is where my life changed for the better not only did I get to help and work with groups of kids/teens I also found a place to work on myself and all the issues I didn’t even know I had. The project supported and guided me through a number of different courses to benefit me in the area of family support and counselling.
I will fast forward to the present: for the past 4 years I have being working as an addiction counsellor specializing in under 18s with substance misuse and family support. It is a career that I have great passion for as I know the importance of having someone say they believe in you and point out all the good qualities they have even if they don’t see them. I truly believe consistent positive regard for others can help break through the barriers of self-depredation.
3 years ago I was introduced to the EAGAL model of equine assisted psychotherapy (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) as an alternative to main stream counselling.
I jumped at the opportunity to bring my two passions in life together and was blown away by the impact horses were having in this area.
What is equine assisted psychotherapy and how it works:
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) incorporates horses experientially for mental health, behavioural therapy and personal development. It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals. Because of its intensity and effectiveness, it is considered a short-term or “brief” approach.
EAP is experiential in nature. This means that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing (or discussing) feelings, behaviours, and patterns. This approach has been compared to the ropes courses used by therapists, treatment facilities, and human development courses around the world. But EAP has the added advantage of utilizing horses, dynamic and powerful living beings. This creates many metaphoric opportunities for a person to look at themselves and how they react in the world around them.
( no horse riding involved !!!)
It is my experience that a lot of people find it hard to express their feelings in a counselling room to a stranger as they feel vulnerable and may not have had an opportunity to speak like this in the family setting causing discomfort and caution. This is where Equine Therapy comes in to play.
Do you know that saying “my kids tell me more when they’re in the back of the car than when we’re sitting at the table” ? Well, the horses can take the intensity out of the situation giving the person more freedom to express themselves whilst also giving them freedom to move around and not make eye contact if they choose.
A horse will not judge you if you’re feeling sad or scared. A horse will not laugh at you or tell you that you’re wrong. Horses are experts at picking up emotion and atmosphere as these are the skills that have kept them alive for thousands of years.
A horse will simply react to the energy it feels from you without judgement or having a hidden agenda. This gives the person a chance to look at their behaviour or actions in a non-threatening or judgemental way giving the person a lot more room to reflet on their thoughts and behaviours as there is no one there to argue with.