At Oceanside Malibu, clients are afforded the opportunity to attend weekly sessions of equine assisted therapy with lead therapist Mark Frankle, M.A., LMFT. Equine assisted therapy is said to be both metaphorical and experiential. According to Mark, “the horses become metaphors for whatever the client is working on.” All of the client interactions with the horses take place on the ground and in a series of games with no actual riding taking place.
Relationships, boundaries, anxiety and approach avoidance can all be observed during simple interactions with the horses such as touching or brushing them and simultaneously being aware of the feelings that come up during these interactions. It’s of particular interest to pay attention to one’s own reaction in response to something a horse might do doing the interaction. Creating a response in a horse brings about a response in the person, it’s those responses which can be key in telling us something about ourselves. People often want to know what certain things the horses do mean, like when the horses respond by moving their ears or tails. The curiosity that takes place when clients notice a particular response in the horse helps begin an empathetic bond between horse and human.
The key to all this is non-verbal communication. As Frankle has stated, “this forces a more emotional experience rather than relying on cognitive tools and the limitations of language, the interactions themselves become more spontaneous.” Transference takes place, but without the trappings of intricate verbal defense systems that can be wielded during an interaction with another person. “There’s always and emotional feedback loop occurring, horses have similar neuro responses as humans”, according to Mark Frankle. “It’s two mammals interacting; if a client is brushing or petting the horse, the horse relaxes, the person relaxes.”
Why horses and not other animals? Mark Frankle explains it this way: “Horses are larger and can seem intimidating, they are herd animals used to interacting with others. When 5 or 6 people interact with the same number of horses, they become a herd. Also, horses will do things like walk up to particular people, or stand between them, more so than dogs will.” These seemingly deliberate behaviors in the horses give people an opportunity to examine their own emotional responses, and perhaps insecurities. A person may develop an attachment to particular horse and thus may be more vested in paying attention to their own emotions when a horse does or doesn’t respond to something they may be doing.
During a session of equine assisted therapy, a horse specialist or trainer is also involved to lay out the ground rules for safe interactions between clients and horses, to inform on safety issues, and answer any questions. Safety precautions such as approaching the horse at an angle, rather than directly from behind, so they don’t run; remaining aware of the placement of your feet so the horses don’t step on them; or keeping hands away from their mouths, are all laid out in the initial session. The size of the horses can be intimidating to some at first, and those that feel anxious on first approach are encouraged to challenge their projections of danger or safety concerns by slowly learning to feed and groom the horses.
Clients involved in equine assisted therapy sessions also interact with the horses in a series of activities. Many of these equine assisted therapy activities, which Frankle helped develop, can guide participants in pinpointing their own threshold levels for things like frustration, patience, and control, which may prove barriers to their further recovery. Participants are directed to be aware of their own emotions and expectations if a horse doesn’t respond in a desired manner or fulfill an expected outcome during the course of an activity.
Some activities involve orange cones, each labeled with a single step from 12-step recovery programs, participants lead their horse from one cone to the next, pausing to verbalize their own personal experience with the step and what it means to them. Other activities, while appearing simple, actually reveal more complex issues within the participant, such as issues with physical boundaries, abuse, or trauma. In these activities, clients must deflect the horses from going after buckets of oats or pellets which are placed in key spots within the outline of a human figure on the ground which represent particular body parts. Observing how vigorously (or not) a participant protects the representative figure from advances by the horse towards key spots on the body can give cues to personal boundaries or past trauma.
It is also especially useful to observe participants who have formed a bond with the horse they’re working with, as all the responses presented result from an emotional core that is not filtered through or restricted by articulation. Simple but revealing patterns can become exposed through this relationship that may mirror past relationship difficulties, like aggression, control issues, dominance, or submissiveness. These bonds formed with the horses can become a safe, guided, & nurturing basis for beginning to form a more healthy interconnectedness with others that become a cornerstone of successful recovery from addictions and abuse. To learn more about equine assisted therapy, Mark Frankle, or how you can participate in our program at Oceanside Malibu, please feel free to contact us anytime.