An Introduction to Experiential Equine Counseling (EEC)
When I was about three years old my parents took me on my first trip to
Destin, Florida. When we arrived, late into the night, they held me to an
open window, asking with excitement in their voices, "Can you hear it?
Can you hear the ocean?"
I don't know if I did hear what my parents wanted me to hear that night.
Probably not, because I had not experienced the ocean yet. I had no
reference point for "hearing the ocean." I had not experienced "ocean"
with my five senses. When I think of that night I do vividly remember
what I already knew: my parents' hands around my torso, the small
section of chipped paint on the window sill, and the air conditioner
rumbling just outside.
Explaining Experiential Equine Counseling (EEC™) to someone unfamiliar with it is a little like asking someone to listen for the ocean without an experiential reference point. With this article I hope to help create that reference point, at least to the extent that can be accomplished with words. Let's start with a few things that EEC is not.
EEC is not, strictly speaking, an intellectual process, although it does draw on several well established and respected paradigms of therapy (i.e. cognitive, gestalt, family systems, transactional analysis) in its philosophy and technique. EEC is not about the equestrian sport or a natural love for animals. People are often surprised how seldom anyone ever even gets on a horse during EEC sessions. And EEC is not a therapy specifically for animal lovers. You do not have to be an "animal person" to benefit.
Equine Therapy is about becoming fully present and fully responsible for ourselves. The sessions require that clients become focused in the now. Being present focused is how to avoid a horse stepping on your foot, and it also happens to be how we learn our most powerful lessons.
The metaphor of how the horses relate to their environment, to each other, and how we relate with them, is the foundation of equine therapy. Clients are educated about several truths in the horses' natural world. First, in the natural world horses are vulnerable. They depend on their God-given "fight or flight" mechanism to make choices. Anything can signal danger for them. It is not for us to say; it is for us to become aware. Second, horses communicate with body language. They are always relating their experience to all living things around them. They use body language in the same way we use words. And third, horses receive and interpret information as well as send it. Clients need to know that how they choose to be in the equine session will be communicated to the horses through their body language. Horses will respond based on what you consciously tell them and what you unconsciously communicate to them. That's right: clients who value intellect above all else are frequently offended to learn that a horse might know something about them that they have yet to discover for themselves.
In equine therapy, as in human relationships, the dynamics of boundaries, personal space, respect, defiance, cooperation and personal power can be explored by way of respect and trust, or through intimidation. The list of commonalties here could go on indefinitely. Almost anything found in our interactions with other people, places and things, can be played out in an equine therapy session.
The sessions take two forms: directive and non-directive. Directive sessions are set up by the therapist and will have specific goals developed for the individual, couple or group. Some of the topics for these sessions are parallel to the therapeutic issues explored in traditional psychotherapy. The work is very individualized in non-directive sessions. A client's subjective approach to the horse becomes the starting point for these sessions. Simple exercises such as haltering, catching, grooming, and leading, allow for a natural unfolding of someone's approach to relationship dynamics, risk-taking tendencies, communication skills, and personal responsibility. As sessions proceed, the equine therapist will blend her training and experience with other therapeutic approaches to create a unique experience of each client.
Experiential Equine Counseling is an experiential therapy, meaning that the client's body (not just the mind) brings information to the session. Physical sensations and emotional states are a natural part of our living experience --- experiences that clients in pain often tend to avoid or deny. But with a living animal that has movement and its own agenda, there is an immediate need for clients to become alert and focused themselves. In doing so they open up their consciousness so that challenges to old thoughts and beliefs can occur, leading to changes in emotions, experience and self-image. This is a hands-on means for clients to examine the patterns they have perpetuated in their lives, and for them to experience concrete results (immediate feedback) when they begin to make new choices.
The power of equine therapy is in its ability to conform to almost any experiential therapy model. For example, my approach is to set up "structures" (psychomotor therapy) or "role plays" (gestalt, transactional analysis, psychodrama) addressing clients' traumas, losses, and impasses, with a goal of offering specific forms of support that will enable them to move beyond defense mechanisms, and on to reclaiming lost moments and opportunities for growth. When I watch clients and my equine co-therapists (aka: the horses) interacting, a "structure" is always occurring because what is happening is a living, breathing, organic present-tense relationship. To these relationships, clients bring their own history and personal reality so that the work will always unfold in a deeply personal and powerful way.
I hope that I have offered a relatively clear description (at least an introduction) of Experiential Equine Counseling. On a personal note, it has been true grace to have the opportunity for my 55 years of loving horses blend so naturally and powerfully with my professional life as a counselor. In doing so, I believe that I can truly say that I have heard the ocean.
Copyright 2015 Dede Beasley, All Rights Reserved