By Marianne Disipio-Vitale
Equine-assisted learning can be described as a wellness practice in which horses are the main teachers, guides, and communicators. Although the facilitator applies coaching and counselling techniques to help clients address their goals, horses are responsible for using very effective techniques to assist with this process.
Unlike therapeutic riding, equine-assisted learning does not teach riding skills. It is primarily relationship based, however, motor skills, health issues, functional skills for everyday life, social/emotional skills, family dynamics, and all spheres of child development are appropriate goals to address during sessions. All activities with the horses are done on the ground and adjusted to the person’s comfort level around the animal.
The following describes ways in which horses can assist the therapeutic process in equine-assisted learning.
Achieving calm breathing
It is well known that bringing awareness to the breath can be an effective way to address anxiety. By remaining still, in close proximity to the horse, the client works towards matching the slow rhythmic breathing of the horse. The horse will naturally guide the client towards an ideal breathing rhythm.
Initially, the horse will begin by simply bringing attention to the person’s breath. Breathing often starts off as deep and heavy. As clients allow themselves to relax with the horse, it often leads them to adopt a softer and more natural rhythm. A flow soon develops between the person and the horse, and self-regulation can then begin for the client.
It is best to let the horse determine when the session is complete. Horses simply proceed by “breaking” the meditation. These animals with therapeutic qualities seem to possess an understanding of when you’ve managed to synchronize your breath with their own and reached a calmer state.
Creating a positive neurophysiological memory
Within the brain lies a structure called the amygdala. This structure is responsible for linking a sensory experience to an emotional memory. Once a positive memory is stored, it has an automatic calming response on the nervous system. In fact, it is the most powerful way the body has to reach a calm state. When a horse succeeds in helping a person store a positive memory, the brain becomes more effective in creating connections for new learning to occur. The facilitator and client can then use that opportunity to make healthy changes.
Everyone emits a certain kind of energy. It is well established in psychology that this emotional energy is transferable and infectious. This is also true for animals. Horses are particularly effective at transmitting positive emotional energy. They are considered high vibrational animals simply because of their humongous size.
People who own horses, and have developed a trusting relationship with them, often describe their horse as their “drug” of choice. This positive effect on mood is often experienced with clients in equine-assisted learning.
Horses are constantly communicating with us. At the very least, they are somehow responding to our presence. Horses will let us know if they feel at ease around us, or if we are somehow making them uncomfortable.
Although their body language is subtle, they can mirror our hidden emotions. Even a simple grooming session can easily turn into a period of self-analysis for the client. There are many messages the horse can relay to you if you are listening. The facilitator helps the client explore those issues in a meaningful way.
Horses are impressive creatures. When people share pleasant and peaceful interactions with horses, they are left feeling inspired and amazed. If they were once intimidated or fearful of horses, there can be a newfound sense of being able to overcome fears, and conquer self-doubts.
As comfort levels increase between clients and their horses, they often describe the experience as magical. They develop an inner confidence around the fact that they can control their responses to their environment, and have a positive influence on other beings. This sense of control contributes to the development of mind over matter for the client participating in equine-assisted learning.
Connecting with your spiritual self
People are now developing more natural and meaningful relationships with horses, and not just restricting their interactions to equine sports. It is interesting to observe that women find themselves particularly drawn to horses at specific transition periods in their lives. In equine-assisted learning, it is possible to work through many challenges within a trusting human/horse relationship. By continually encouraging clients to be present in body, mind, and spirit, the horse becomes a great guide in helping them address personal goals.
Children are also great candidates to work with horses, as “what you see is what you get.” Horses are prey animals, and their very survival depends on their sophisticated ability to read body language and subtle emotions. Children are more consistent than adults at exhibiting behaviours that are truly congruent with their emotions. Horses respond best to this emotional authenticity, and therefore can create very powerful connections with children. This relationship can become a great foundation for working on other areas with children, while keeping them motivated and interested.
Identifying aches and pains
Horses are social animals and can show sympathy, as well as engage in nurturing behaviour within their own herd. Horses are believed to be able to perceive emotional states, muscle tension changes, blocked chakras and even pain. Horses with healing qualities are also recognized as being skilled at targeting any troublesome areas of the body, and assuring the flow between all bodily systems. This is similar to other energy-based techniques.
Equine-assisted learning is a great example of how the use of horses as teachers and guides can be effective in addressing goals for children and adults. In fact, equine-assisted learning can complement many other types of therapies, by adding a spiritual dimension to the therapeutic process, which is not often addressed or considered. Clients are always encouraged to discover their own true sense of self, and their respective place in the universe. This can be extremely empowering, and allow for a certain sense of peace.
—Marianne Disipio-Vitale has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Occupational Therapy and is a wellness coach and equine-assisted learning facilitator. She can be reached at 403-828-0242 or email@example.com.