WHY EQUINE EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING? How it supports the therapeutic process and what clients can learn from an EFEL session. Kathleen Barry Ingram, MA
Epona Equestrian Services Equine facilitated experiential learning (EFEL) is not a new field or one that can be practiced only by “horse whisperers” or trained professionals. Human/horse relationships, in which the horse is the teacher, have existed for centuries, but it is only in the last fifteen years that this has been formalized into an actual therapeutic discipline. Linda Kohanov and her human and equine colleagues at the Epona Center have been teaching this discipline to students and participants for the past five years. The Epona graduates, from a variety of fields and experience, are taught all of the principles, philosophies and techniques that Linda Kohanov and I employ in working with horses and people. Linda’s books, The Tao of Equus and Riding Between the Worlds, illustrate and educate people on how and why this works and how to take the mystery out of the interactions between horses and people. As a former practicing psychotherapist, I found myself increasingly frustrated by my clients’ stuck behavior patterns, resistance to change, and inability to adjust or adapt old coping skills. When I started my private practice in February of 1992, my first brochure talked about moving from Surviving to Thriving and I knew that “talk therapy” was not going to be the way to assist individuals on this path. I worked with a number of body workers, energy healers, nutritionists, doctors, and other equine experiential learning practitioners. I was first exposed to the Way of the Horse through the adolescent program at Sierra Tucson, Center for Addiction Recovery. Reed Smith brought the horses in to work with the adolescents in the early 1990’s and employed Barbara Rector and Ann Alden as his support team. Reed, a clinician and counselor, was also raised with horses and knew intuitively that these clear mirrors would help the young people understand themselves and their addictive behavior better than any adult. The kids could talk to the horses and tell them things they were afraid to air in public, and as they did, their addictive behavior and self-destructive patterns began to change. Barbara and Ann left Sierra Tucson and during a serendipitous meeting, they asked me to teach what Barbara called, “Taking the therapeutic knowledge from the barn to the client.” I worked with them at workshops and learned a lot about the horse’s behavior and ability to help people change. I saw with my own eyes and heart how often a horse was able to dislodge a deep emotion, secret or unconscious destructive behavior pattern in participants and assist them in discovering a new path and way of being in the world. It was at one of these workshops that I met Linda Kohanov. Linda said, “I am writing a book about horse/human relationships. I am so grateful that I followed guidance to take this encounter with Linda further because doing so changed my life and allowed me to assist others towards their new lives. In Riding Between the Worlds, Linda explains how horses help


people and why we need the assistance of these four-legged “shamans” in our unbalanced and confused world. Domesticated horses retain the thought and behavior patterns of their nomadic ancestors. Interacting with these animals on their own terms encourages a fluidity of human thought, emotion, and behavior that sedentary twenty-first-century life makes difficult. Horses also model the strengths of what are often referred to as “feminine values”: cooperation over competition, relationship over territory, responsiveness over strategy, emotion and intuition over logic, process over goal, and the creative approach to life that these qualities engender. Equine experiential learning, whether practiced formally with a trained facilitator, or informally with one’s own horse, first and foremost expands nonverbal awareness. Internet relationships, computer games, cell phones, radios, and flashy multimedia encourage excessive reliance on language and surface appearances. Modern humans are literally mesmerized by words, yet psychologists have determined that less than 10 percent of communication is verbal. Vast nuances of information arise from behavior, emotional import, intent, and more subtle energetic exchanges, qualities so grossly downplayed in postindustrial society that people are losing their ability to function fully and authentically. They tend to judge others, and sometimes themselves, as being good or bad, smart or stupid, trustworthy or suspect based on a few isolated experiences, their often unconscious prejudices and the opinions of peers. Once this impression is formed, they become increasingly blind to what’s happening in the moment. (Riding Between the Worlds, pgs. Xxix-xxx) Linda’s words in this excerpt describe a few of the areas I felt traditional therapy lacked. Horses help people to learn about their nonverbal cues, unconscious behavior patterns, and the emotional import and intent of their words and actions. At Epona we teach people to understand and to use the information behind their emotions. (See the Emotional Chart in Riding Between the Worlds, pgs. 231-237) I often suggest this book to clients and families with young children because I believe this can be a great teaching tool for young children. What would our world be like if we learned to use the information our emotions contained instead of suppressing them or acting them out? Horses help people to get out of their own way by requiring them to be present to the moment and to not rely on their outdated thought patterns or opinions. When Linda and I first started conducting workshops at The Ranch in Tucson, what I call “the straw bale and porta-potty days,” I would encourage all of my clients to attend. I had started to feel frustrated with clients who wanted to continue to process their emotions, thoughts and feelings in a traditional talk session. Most of my clients attended these early workshops and their rapid change encouraged others to seek this “therapy”. I still referred people appropriately to doctors for medication if needed, to body workers and energy healers; however, I found that the most lasting change occurred with the interactions with the horses and the group dynamics formed at these workshops and sessions. Linda and I started our first training program in January of 2002 and by November 2006 we will have educated and trained 113 people from around the world in Equine Experiential Learning. Linda describes what we call “The Eight Essential Skills for Authentic


Community Building” in Riding Between the Worlds (pg. 116). These skills came out of our awareness of what it takes for individuals to support each other through the process of growth and change during our apprenticeship training and at our workshops. Some of the concepts most useful to therapists are: emotion as information; sensing and flowing with the emotions of others; sitting in uncomfortable emotions without panicking; reading misbehavior as a form of communication; resisting the temptation to fix people, horses, or uncomfortable situations; understanding that emotions are contagious; that we may have emotional resonance with some and not with others, and creating the container of psychological support what I call “holding the sacred space of possibility”. I have found that horses give people an “aha” experience and acknowledge intuitive insights and perceptions more accurately than humans could ever do. Horses do not come in with preconceived ideas of who or what this person is, or how this person should be in the world. Horses are concerned with an individual’s honesty and congruence; in other words, horses really rely on actions being more powerful than words. Irving Yalom, MD, one of the leaders in group therapy and dynamics, in his recent book The Gift of Therapy says: “Psychiatry is on the verge of abandoning the field of psychotherapy. Young psychiatrists are forced to specialize in psychopharmacology because third party payers now reimburse for psychotherapy only if it is delivered by low fee (in other words, minimally) trained practitioners.” Even though Yalom is concerned about the current state of affairs, he is confident that a “cohort of therapists coming from a variety of educational disciplines will continue to pursue rigorous post graduate training.” Equine Experiential Learning can fill some of the gaps left by the health care system. Individuals seeking change from old dysfunctional patterns of behavior and automatic responses based on unconscious motivations can find assistance through the way of the horse. Yalom says, “At its very core, the flow of therapy should be spontaneous, forever following unanticipated river beds.” Therapy following a managed care protocol does not allow for spontaneity and reflection. Horses, as our teachers and co-facilitators, demand that we “go with the flow” and keep the therapy dynamic and stay in the present moment. My post graduate training with Paul Rosenberg, MD and the Pathfinder Institute taught me about short term dynamic psychotherapy which deals with the client’s unconscious forces (dynamics) of the inner conflict by getting in touch with repressed memories and emotions and experiencing them in the present moment. I practiced a lot of what I learned by Dr. Rosenberg in my office setting; however, it wasn’t until my work with the horses that the situations were real, clear, and immediate. In the past, I was the object for all of the transference and projections of my clients. I am grateful that the horses can act as a filter for me and allow me to also bypass my counter-transference reactions and be more of an observer. From this place I can assist without my former prejudices and opinions clouding the interaction. I still need to be aware of my past and the projections and transference issues, which may surface, but I can always rely on the horse’s clarity and perceptions as my co-therapist. Karen Horney and the Neo-Freudians emphasized that the interpersonal environment, and not just the intrapersonal drive theory of Freud’s, influences and affects the individual throughout life. The interpersonal shapes the character structure of individuals, i.e., a


characterlogical disorder does not happen within, rather the outside influences, traumas, family dynamics, and relationships shape and affect the individual psyche. The “false self”, a concept we use at Epona to describe the self that is not authentic, develops and is consistently reinforced through the parameters of the dominance/submission paradigm. However, since all of this process happens within the context of relationship, the horses in the present moment can help heal with their excellent relational gifts. Karen Horney and I agree that human beings have an inbuilt propensity toward self-realization. She said, “If the obstacles are removed, the individual will develop into a mature, fully realized adult, just as an acorn will develop into an oak tree.” When we work with the horses and the unconscious is made conscious an individual, with the help of the group and the facilitator, can clearly see their dysfunctional patterns and change can occur. Individuals working with a practitioner of EFEL can go back to their therapists with this new knowledge and, with reinforcement and practice, lasting change can happen. I have seen many times the beginning of a new neural pathway developing with this work. I often say that a client can start a new narrow path to a way of responding to a previously triggering situation or stimulus, and that eventually this new path with replace the old superhighway of the automatic survival response. Hopefully, the new path will become wider and more functional and the superhighway will grow over with weeds and become less accessible or desirable. The therapeutic relationship in the here and now can allow for a “corrective emotional experience” when the past catastrophes do not play themselves out as before. The client is not exploited, abandoned or abused by the therapist, but is held in the “sacred space of possibility” and nurtured. The client can experience intimacy and correct their belief that there is something basically wrong and unacceptable about them. Again, horses do not reject an individual who is clear and congruent. They do not have judgment about the individual’s past mistakes or character defects. The gift of therapy through the way of the horse can begin the healing process without diagnosis or labeling. I have found that bringing the referring therapist out for a couple of sessions with their clients allows for the safety to be built for the horses and the equine specialist to begin their work. Initially, many of my clients would rotate meeting with me one week and the next week with Linda and the horses. I could reinforce what the horses taught them about themselves and help them to take what they learned at the “barn” and transfer this to their daily interactions and relationships. Creating new neural pathways, receiving positive reinforcement and having corrective emotional experiences continues to heal the “little children” in all of us. I personally bless and thank all of the creative individuals for their pioneering work, which has allowed for the field of equine experiential learning and equine facilitated mental health to develop into the ethical discipline we practice today. Karen Horney and her colleagues would smile at this new development in the field of therapy. I can see them looking down on us and seeing many acorns turning into great oak trees. Kathleen Barry Ingram, MA; 9/30/05 Epona Equestrian Services


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