KNOTTSVILLE, Ky. (AP) – About 35 equine specialists and mental-health professionals from several states gathered at Lanham Family Farm in Knottsville to train in an Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association workshop.
Dubbed Eagala for short, the worldwide program incorporates horses in psychotherapy.
Horses pair well with humans in therapy for many reasons, said Misty Baker of Daviess County.
Baker, an equine specialist who is certified in the Eagala model, operates The Bridges Program, which uses horses in therapy. She contracts with two local mental-health professionals, who also are certified in Eagala methods.
As Baker explains it, horses are prey animals. Humans are predators.
For that reason, horses constantly assess humans when they make contact.
"They immediately start to read your body language," Baker said. "They tend to pick up on the undercurrent of the unspoken things we bring into the arena."
Much like bearing a physical load on their backs, horses take on their clients’ emotional trauma, she said. Some of her horses have needed downtime after a session because the projected pain was so great.
Equine-assisted therapy is a hands-on method that leans heavily on the concept that people learn best by doing.
Baker has nine horses. During the first session, she and the client enter an arena or field with the herd. Then, one or more horses select the client – not the other way around.
Clients never ride the horses. Therapy takes place face-to-face at ground level.
Each session includes the client, horse, equine specialist and mental-health professional in the arena together.
"Horses mirror us," said Lura McElhearn, a certified drug and alcohol counselor who is one of two therapists who work with Baker at The Bridges Program.
Horses are masters at reading body language and respond to nonverbal cues clients send in much the same way their spouses, children and co-workers react.
"The horses become very real symbols of these relationships and allow clients the opportunity to work through how to change these aspects of their lives in an experiential, in-the-moment and emotionally safe method," an Eagala handbook said.
McElhearn said equine therapy helps clients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction, domestic abuse and autism, to name a few. Sometimes, juvenile clients are court-ordered to attend equine-assisted therapy.
The Bridges Program offers hour-long sessions for individuals and families. Group sessions generally last 90 minutes.
(Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)