A Psychotherapy Model of 

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy & Equine Assisted Learning

What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)?

The Equine Psychotherapy Institute Model EAP is a professional, innovative and experiential approach to counselling, psychotherapy, and mental health that supports clients of all ages in addressing therapeutic goals (emotional, cognitive, behavioural, relational and spiritual issues, and mental health conditions), with horses as assistants, co-facilitators and teachers in this process.

EAP is a form of Animal Assisted Psychotherapy/Therapy (that developed in the 1960’s). EAP, as a unique methodology came into being in the 1990’s. It is a form of Psychotherapy/Therapy, and thus, should be offered by registered counsellors, psychotherapists or mental health practitioners only.

In EAP, clients are offered safe experiences with horses for the purpose of exploring self-experience, exploring experience in relationship, building self-awareness, building awareness of patterns / habits that are no-longer serving clients well, psychological healing and addressing clinical or therapeutic goals clients have identified or agreed to.

AWARE Therapy TM

Our Institute programs are Based on AWARE Therapy TM which includes a theory of change and practice methodology developed by Meg Kirby as a specialist equine, animal, and nature assisted therapy approach.

More on EAP:

  • Psychologists and Mental Health Practitioners with a love of horses who are untrained in an EAP Model are not skilled to offer this work.
  • Horsepeople, unregistered as a MH Practitioner, are not skilled to offer EAP.
  • People that are trained in one model, e.g. Eagala Model EAP are untrained to offer ‘Equine Therapy’ unless it is Eagala Model.
  • People that are trained in EPI Model are trained to offer EPI Model sessions only.
  • People that have attended workshops in EAP/EAL, but have not trained and certified in a particular Model of EAP, are unskilled to offer EAP.
  • Just because clients engage with Horses and find the work enjoyable, does not make it Psychotherapy or EAP!
    Further, What EAP is not!
  • It is not Psychotherapy for horses with emotional issues
  • It is not Horsemanship – teaching or training horses for ‘feel good’ or mastery outcomes (even if facilitated by a Psychologist)
  • It is not horse riding or teaching a client to ride a horse.
  • It is not Hippotherapy where occupational therapists support clients in physical therapy
  • It is not RDA (Riding for the Disabled) – where people with physical and intellectual disabilities learn to ride horses and learn horsemanship.

These are all wonderful pursuits with positive outcomes to be experienced, however, it is not Equine Assisted Psychotherapy!

What are the benefits of EAP?

Research suggests that the long-term benefits of EAP depends on both the active experiencing of new situations and experiences, and, on the quality of the ‘processing’ and integrating of the equine experience, facilitated by specialist trained, qualified and experienced psychotherapy and mental health practitioners.

Thus, it is a combination of the evocative and reflecting capacities of the horses, the natural connecting and healing presence of the horses and the natural environment, and, the skills of the experienced psychotherapists or mental health practitioners that together weave the opportunities for growth in experience and reflection.

What happens in EAP sessions?

Sessions occur in a safe and natural environment, such as a paddock, ménage, round-yard or barn with a Trained and Certified EAP practitioner. There may be one or many horses participating in the session.

After an initial check in and initial assessment of the client’s needs and issues, the client is offered a relational experience with the horse/s that is specific to the needs /issues presented. The client is offered some clear guidelines about the process, the horses, and supported in ways that are appropriate.

The EPI Model works with relational horse experiences, including horse observations, meeting horses at liberty, ground/leadline sessions, herd sessions, led mounted sessions, and riding sessions.

These experiences with horses are offered to clients, given the unique needs, goals and wants of the client, and, the wants and feelings of the horse/s.

What is Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)?

In the Equine Psychotherapy Institute Model, EAL is a specialist process of Experiential Learning for diverse clients addressing particular learning goals.

Learning Goals may include Personal Development for children and adults or Professional Development goals. Goals may include psychosocial skills building, developing life skills, and developing particular organisational, business- and work-related skills such as working effectively in teams, leadership skills, and communication skills.

As in EAP, the certified EAL practitioner partners with horses and offers ‘equine experiences’ to clients, to explore and address the learning needs and goals identified.

What happens in EAL sessions?

EAL sessions may look similar to what happens in EAP, however, the goals are learning goals, rather than therapeutic, psychotherapy, counselling or mental health goals.

Often times the sessions may appear more structured and oriented around skills building.  But not always!

What is the difference between EAL and EAP (scope of practice)?

EAL has 2 key differences to EAP:

  1. EAL sessions do not (and should not) deepen into emotional psychotherapy processes such as exploring and integrating past relationships with attachment figures, past trauma or traumatic memories. The EAL sessions stay in the Here and Now work with the client and horses. EAP can shuttle from the Here and Now to the There and Then, depending on therapeutic goals and client assessment. Mental Health practitioners have a range of competencies to support mental health and psychotherapy clients.
  2. EAL practitioners are not registered allied health professionals, psychotherapists or mental health practitioners and are not qualified, trained or registered to be working with psychotherapy process. EPI Model EAL practitioners know the boundaries between EAP and EAL and offer safe, professional sessions for clients. EAL processes can be extremely valuable for many clients, including children, school groups, adult leadership groups, personal development sessions and NDIS clients.

EPI Model view on horses

Horses are beautiful, intelligent, sensitive and strong animals. People are often attracted to horses’ beauty and size, as a literal and symbolic representation of beauty, power, expression and freedom. This can illicit or evoke strong feelings and responses and unconscious feelings and needs, then available for therapeutic attention and processing. Sometimes strong feelings like fear / panic, sadness /grief and anger / rage can become available for the first time for therapeutic processing.

Calm and healthy horses can provide an emotional and sensory environment for clients that is conducive of calmness and the development of trust. Horses can offer a non-judgemental response to people and an acceptance that is different to other people, even the trained equine practitioner. Horses who are healthy seek closeness with people, triggering the client’s opening to, yearning and want for closeness, affection and connection in that safe environment. This emotional safety and trust engage the client’s brain-body responses and begins new neural pathways, felt sense and body memories for safety in relationship.

Because horses can move quickly, are large and respond to their feelings and instincts, people often have a healthy respect and heightened awareness around horses, for survival and safety. This heightened awareness acts as a ’safe emergency’ for people to attend to what is actually happening, in themselves and their environment in a new way. Moving out of ‘automatic pilot’ into ‘awareness’ is the primary condition for self-awareness and change.

Horses live in the present moment, in awareness and authentic contact, when living in a herd environment. These capacities are profoundly important for human health and wellness – the capacity to live in the present, be aware and create and maintain healthy, honest and creative relationships. These capacities and skills can be developed in the EAP and EAL sessions via offering equine experiences and particular facilitation, and psycho-education of ‘the way of the horse’ or horse wisdom.

Horses are prey, play and herd animals. Horses are prey animals and therefore naturally have a sensitive, hyper-vigilant nature oriented around heightened awareness. They communicate predominantly non-verbally, via body expressions, energy and behaviours, and can pick up subtle changes in the horse / person / environment. Horses experience, and then respond. Due to horses being a highly perceptive species, they will react behaviourally to each client differently – due to each person’s individual non-verbal communication, energy, tension, relaxation, approach, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours, as they manifest in the obvious and subtle physiological and physical responses in the person. This horse response, acts as feedback for the client and provides a rich opportunity for people to increase their self-awareness, choice and responses. People can begin to learn about developing their own body awareness, non-verbal communications, and capacity to communicate with both directness and subtlety.

As herd animals, horses are oriented towards connection and relationship, and are social animals with a particular herd structure or organisation. Because horses are oriented around connection and bonding, they can offer a unique relationship for clients to explore their experience in relationship, and explore new behaviours. Horse ‘contact’ is authentic – what they experience or feel they express, and this is both great modelling for humans and an opportunity for feedback without judgement. Clients and horses can build safety, trust, relationship and intimacy that is both a corrective emotional experience and an opportunity to build relational skills and brain-body connections that may have been missing or underdeveloped. Also, horses’ model different forms of leadership relationships, so people can explore leading from ‘up front’, ‘shoulder to shoulder or heart to heart’ and leading ‘from behind, motivating and driving from behind’ in their parenting, work and life relationships. Horses require clear and congruent leaders, so exploring becoming the horses’ leader, can be a rich way to explore stepping into successful leadership.

Horses are playful and like to explore and express their uniqueness in their environment and herd. Young horses particularly explore and express themselves with their mouths, teeth and bodies. Just as children do. This innate curiosity and playfulness mean that horses often at times, like to engage and play with other horses and humans in EAP and EFL sessions and offer opportunities for people to explore relationship, expression, and boundaries in a safe, engaging way.

Horses are individuals, like people and can vary in temperament, ‘personality’ or conditioned character, formative early life experiences, memories, behaviour, strengths/talents and underdeveloped areas. Herds of horses are both a group of individuals and a ‘group’ of organised relationships. In this way clients can begin to explore individual differences, ‘parts of self’, feelings and behaviours that are similar to the individual horses and group relationships in family and work relationships in a literal and metaphoric way.

Relating with horses and accomplishing ‘tasks’ or activities with horses can encourage the development of skills and values that promote emotional health, i.e. patience, fairness, commitment, emotional congruency, relaxation and good breathing, clear communication, care and slowing down, firmness and determination, good and consistent boundaries. These activities with horses and the skills required can be further integrated and explored with clients as excellent life skills applied in all life domains.

Teaching about the wisdom of horses, or Horse Wisdom, can be a wonderful psycho-educational opportunity for clients to increase their social-emotional growth skills. If horses have not been damaged psychologically by the mistreatment of humans (intentionally or unintentionally), they model to humans – alert awareness, good boundary setting, a clarity of being, the wisdom of prey as different from predator ways, managing feelings as information (rather than avoidance or manipulation of feelings), a model for viewing sensitivity as a strength, and, clear communication. We can offer observations and experiences with horses for clients to learn about these capacities and life skills, alongside the psycho-educational interventions.

What is the Equine Psychotherapy Institute (EPI) Model?

7 Principles of Practice of the EPI Model

The EPI Model has 7 Principles of practice that ensure professionalism, safety and ethics in the work:

  1. Relationship
    Sessions focus on the horse-client-practitioner relationship as the container and medium for change. Equine experiences are relationally offered, the model rests on the therapeutic belief and research indicator that it is the ‘relationship that heals’.
  2. Holistic Practice
    The approach works across all layers of human experience and functioning, and is processed by the practitioner across all layers of human experience, including somatic (body), feeling (affect), cognitive, behavioural and relational experience.
  3. Ethics
    The approach is an integrated and ethically driven model, where values and ethics that guide practitioners are drawn from the APS (Psychologist ethics), AASW (Social Work ethics), Eco-psychology and Animal Welfare Ethics.
  4. Theory of Change
    The theory of change is drawn from a coherent and comprehensive system of psychological and psychotherapeutic theory and practice. It is explicitly taught to practitioners, and guides the focus of sessions for effective outcomes.
  5. Horse Wisdom Psycho-Education
    The model teaches students and clients life lessons from horses. Horse Wisdom psycho-education is integrated into this model of therapy and learning, and thus incorporates a unique educational approach. Importantly, the horses participate in sessions in a unique way governed by the I-Thou Horse-person-ship approach, created by Institute founder, Meggin Kirby.
  6. Specialist Trained Practitioners
    All EAP and EAL practitioners are trained in 3 specialist fields - change processes in psychotherapy and experiential learning, equine studies and horsemanship, and, the unique horse-human dynamics in EAP and EAL. EPI Foundation Practitioner training includes 124 hours of training and supervision, and additional final assessment processes. EPI Advanced training includes 220 hours of training and assessment.
  7. Personal Work and Professional Growth
    EPI practitioners are committed to their personal growth and professional growth as the foundation for ethical and professional practice. Practitioners begin deep personal work in the training and commit to ongoing personal therapy to keep their work safe and effective for their clients, and to ensure congruence of the work.