EPI Model 

EPI Model - Equine Psychotherapy Institute - Victoria, AU

A Psychotherapy Model of ‘Equine Assisted Psychotherapy & Learning’

The Equine Psychotherapy Institute (EPI) Model of EAP is a Professional, Innovative and Experiential approach to Counselling, Psychotherapy, and Mental Health that supports clients of all ages in addressing therapeutic goals, with horses as assistants, co-facilitators and teachers in this process.

The focus of this Psychotherapy Model, as in room-based psychotherapy, is to support and explore Therapeutic change and Personal Development for a broad range of client needs. The client needs and struggles are as diverse as for those clients seeking room-based psychotherapy and consultation. EAP sessions and process are utilized with clients exploring personal and spiritual growth, trauma and abuse, depression, anxiety, addictions, attachment disorders, personality disorders/traits, children with a range of needs and disorders, groups, couples, families, and organisations.

EAP is a form of Animal Assisted Psychotherapy (that developed in the 1960’s). EAP, as a unique methodology came into being in the 1990’s. It is a form of Psychotherapy, and thus, is offered by registered psychotherapist or registered mental health practitioners only. As a young and emerging field of practice, it is The Equine Psychotherapy Institute’s mission to offer a Training Pathway founded on a coherent and comprehensive Psychotherapy Model of ‘Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning’. The intention is to raise the standard of Training and Practice across the World. The EPI Model is therefore theoretically comprehensive and unrivaled in its Psychotherapeutic sophistication.


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, eg 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 – 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!

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 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 occur in a safe and natural environment, such as a paddock, menage, 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 clients’ 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 Equine Psychotherapy Institute (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/Facilitated Learning (EAL/EFL)? What happens in EAL/EFL?

Equine Psychotherapy Institute Model EAL and EFL 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/EFL practitioners partner with horses and offer ‘equine experiences’ to clients, to explore and address the learning needs and goals identified.

What happens in the EAL and EFL sessions may look similar to what happens in EAP, however the goals are learning goals, rather than psychotherapy, counselling or mental health goals. Often times the sessions may appear more structured and oriented around skills building. EAL has 2 key differences to EAP. One, the sessions do not (and should not) deepen into emotional psychotherapy processes such as exploring, expressing and integrating core beliefs, deep emotions, early family of origin relationships and ruptures, and trauma. Secondly, practitioners are not registered Psychotherapists or mental health practitioners and are not trained or registered to be working at that deeper level. EPI Model EAL and EFL Practitioners know the boundaries between EAP and EAL and offer safe, professional sessions for clients. EAL and EFL processes can be extremely valuable for all clients interested in developing awareness and life skills, and offering innovative pathways for self and professional development.

NB EAL/EFP acronyms are used interchangeably, EPI Model practitioners choose the acronym that best represents their approach (ie horses assisting or facilitating).

Why 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 engages 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’.

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 means that horses often times like to engage and play with other horses and humans in EAP and EAL 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 organized 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, ie 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.

What we refer to as ‘The Way of the Horse’ or horse wisdom can be very rich for us as human beings as opportunities for ‘Psychoeducation’. 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 at liberty for clients to learn about these capacities and life skills.

Specifically, in the EPI Model, Horses can (offer)

Unique Feedback – A feedback mechanism of how clients feel and behave in relationship. Due to horses heightened sensitivity and natural instincts of responding to subtle changes in the field/environment, they respond to each person uniquely. Additionally, when a person tries something different, and makes a change in intention, feeling or behaviour, the horse’s response changes. In this way, horse feedback can encourage self-awareness and congruency of body, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. Non-verbal feedback from horses can be powerful and can effect change with client groups whom are not able or interested to verbalize or reflect.

Emotional Safety and Trust – the presence of calm and healthy horses can contribute to clients feeling calm, confident and developing trust in ‘others’, beginning with trusting the horse, extending to equine practitioner, over time extending to others in life.

Individual Qualities and Strengths – horses are individuals, and experiences with different horses can support clients to understand different feelings and parts of themselves and others, and can be a engaging way to accept one’s natural strengths.

Authentic and honest Contact, Relationship and Attachment experiences that are reliable, free of judgement and interpretation. Experiences in relationship, and with a herd, can model and trigger exploration of relationships in ‘family herds’ and ‘organisation/work herds’.

Confirmation – people can feel or receive unconditional positive regard, ‘therapeutic holding’ or experience ‘love’ from the horse. Sometimes this is the first time a client may have ever felt truly confirmed or loved by another.

Evoke – unconscious or unaware feelings and needs can be evoked sometimes in the presence of horses. These feelings and needs can then be attended to/facilitated in the therapeutic contract.

Move/Touch people – in ways that we cannot do as psychotherapists with clients, eg holding, touching, hugging, being ‘held by’ (in mounted sessions) horses. Mounted sessions can provide a ‘mobile therapeutic setting’ where early developmental needs around nourishment/attainment, touch and movement can be explored for clients with attachment needs. The 3 dimensional movements of the horse is similar to the human while walking and can represent ‘parental holding’ and early unmet needs can be met in this way whilst in sessions. Feelings are sometimes heightened whilst mounted a horse, and thus become available for acceptance and integration. Mounted sessions can magnify body sensations, feelings and an experience of intimacy that does not occur in other ways, being a rich opportunity for learning and therapeutic ‘integration’.

Model – horses model ways to be aware, connected to senses, receiving feelings as information about the person-environment field, boundary-setting and communication, different styles of leadership. Practitioners can highlight these horse behaviours in the sessions and offer appropriate psycho-education and experiential learning.

What is the Equine Psychotherapy Institute (EPI) Model?

The EPI Model is a unique approach to EAP and EAL, equine therapy and learning, developed in Australia by Mental Health Social Worker, Psychotherapist and Equine Psychotherapist Meg Kirby since 2008. The Model was developed with the primary intention of raising the standard of ‘best practice’ in service provision and training pathways available for practitioners in Australia. It is an Australian model that is relational, ethical, effective, deeply respectful of clients, horses and practitioners, and most importantly, founded on contemporary psychological and psychotherapeutic theory and practice. It is a model utilized to train EAP and EAL students, and to provide psychotherapy, personal development and organisational/work related experiential learning services to the community.

In the EPI Model, EAP is an Experiential approach to Psychotherapy and Mental Health, facilitated by a registered Mental Health Practitioner (like a Psychologist or Mental Health Social Worker) or registered Psychotherapist or Counsellor, who has advanced skills in Horsemanship, and, importantly has undertaken extensive Practitioner Training and Supervision in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (including a minimum of 15 days training, 6 hours Supervision, including practical and theoretical assessment processes for foundation level certification). In the EPI Model, EAL Practitioners have advanced skills in horsemanship, change processes, facilitation and the have undertaken the same training process, including 15 days training, 6 hours supervision and Assessment. Advanced EAP and EAL Practitioners undertake over 27 days training and a total of 12 hours of formalized supervision for certification. This extensive training and competencies of the EPI Model Practitioner, sets the Model apart from other Models practiced in Australia.

The EPI Model is informed by * Common Factors Psychotherapy/Counselling Research outcomes on the therapeutic relationship as one of the key ingredients to change, *Contemporary Trauma practice based on neuroscience and somatic based practice * Psychological theory and Psychotherapeutic Practice and *The Way of the Horse – where horses model and teach us about awareness, sensing/embodiment and authentic relationship.

In Summary, the EPI Model has 7 Principles of Practice that ensure professionalism, safety and ethics in the work, including –

1. Relationship – sessions focus on the horse-client-practitioner relationship as the container and medium for change.
2. Holistic – the approach works across all layers of human experience and functioning, including somatic/ body, feeling, 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 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 – including theory and practice in working relationally, with awareness, acceptance, and experimentation, as the main ingredients for change.
5. The Way of the Horse – teachings from horses are offered to clients as opportunities for health and wellness. ‘Way of the Horse’ Psycho-education is integrated into this model of therapy and learning. In the EPA Model, the horses participate in sessions in a unique way.
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 unique horse-human dynamics in EAP and EAL.
7. Personal 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 EPI Training, and commit to ongoing personal work to keep their work safe and effective for their clients, and to ensure congruence of the work.

In Summary

EPI Model equine therapy and learning sessions can offer a ‘safe challenge’ for people to be in relationship and to explore feelings, behaviours and patterns in a safe but challenging, new way. It can be a captivating and unique way of engaging humans in their own growth via relating to magnificent, large, sensitive, and social animals. Thus, it can be an opportunity for some people to feel more engaged, interested, and less confronted in the psychotherapy/learning process.

© Meg Kirby 2016