The Heart of the Matter Part II

In Part I I looked at Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Relational Frame Theory applied in the arena.  But there is a deeper level, the level where we can be at loss for words, the level bystanders may refer to as “magic.”

It is this second layer that is key to why horses can help rebuild the flexibility needed to perform higher level cognitive behaviors.  When a person experiences trauma, struggles with psychosis, has a traumatic brain injury, or is otherwise neurologically impaired, the brain loses its ability to flex.  The frontal lobe goes offline and much decision making is done out of habit and/or through the limbic system.  The role of therapy at this point is often to address issues related to a lack of flexibility including decreased ability to communicate effectively, isolation, avoidance and inability to perspective take.  Being in the presence of horses seems to turn something on in the human directly related to this process.  When in the presence of horses, we find ourselves able to focus more fully and truly be present.  My own work shows this anecdotally and through outcomes.  Several recent studies have utilized measures that look at mindfulness or being present.  The ability to be mindful increases with equine assisted psychotherapy intervention.  (Earles, 2015)

We also begin to make associations or metaphors when allowed to spend time on the ground with horses.  I recently participated in a demonstration of several mindfulness exercises with horses.  Each of the six participants naturally started drawing metaphors/connections to their own lives based off their experiences with the horses.  There was no mention from the facilitators to include these thoughts as we did the exercise (move with the horse of your choice).  There was no processing after the experience to draw these metaphors out.  they happened organically and internally in each of the participants.  Metaphor, if you recall from English class, is a form of analogy.  Recall that RFT is based on understanding the human brain’s ability to create associations between various contexts–including metaphors.  In doing so, we are practicing cognitive flexibility.  utilizing flexibility and analogy can start to open doors and unlock areas that have been stuck.  We often see clients project onto the horses as well.  The horses take on personas of the client or other people in the client’s life.  This separating of self can begin to set up an understanding of self-as-context for the client.  They may start to identify that they are separate from their illness or trauma.  In this they may also start to practice cognitive diffusion skills, realizing that their thoughts are simply that.

Horses can be excellent mentors for another point addressed by ACT, namely acceptance.  Acceptance has several levels in and of itself.  It asks us to let go of experiences but also to be willing to allow experiences to come as they will.  Have you ever watched a horse in a field when a loud noise or other spook-worthy event occurs?  The horse will typically look up, ears perked, possibly snort or even turn and run a suitable distance from the object or noise.  Once in a zone deemed to be far enough from danger, the horse will return to grazing.  Clients will often remark on these behaviors in the horses, noting that they wish they could be accepting of what life hands them.  The truth is that we can be.  We can learn to let go, to allow, and to stay present.  Oftentimes, just observing this behavior in another creature is enough to spark motivation within ourselves.  When we start to do these things: to be in the moment, to accept life as it comes, to become aware of our thoughts and to realize that we are not the moments that have happened before and they do not fully define us,  this is when we start to develop motivation to move forward with our lives.  This is the point where we can truly begin to partake in committed action.  This is where we realize what we value most in life and start to live for those values.  The horses do that for us.  Not because a therapist gives us activities to complete to teach us skills, but because we show up and are open to learning from the best therapists of all.



Earles, J. L., Vernon, L. L., & Yetz, J. P. (2015). Equine‐assisted therapy for anxiety and posttraumatic stress symptoms. Journal Of Traumatic Stress, 28(2), 149-152. doi:10.1002/jts.21990

The Heart of the Matter

I’ve been trying to develop words for the concepts and connections that I understand in my head.  Recently, I attempted to share some of these insights with other like-minded folk at the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association’s 17th annual conference.  I think the presentation was well received, but I wouldn’t be me without coming up with additional answers and insights to questions asked during the presentation several hours after it was over.  As I tossed those thoughts around while trying to sleep I realized that I have a way to share those insights even though I may have missed the moment. this post will outline the connections I’ve made applying Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in the arena.

In order to properly explain the concept, one first has to have an understanding of ACT as well as Relational Frame Theory (RFT) on which ACT is based.

Relational Frame Theory is a functional contextual approach to complex human behavior such as language and cognition (the stuff only human brains do).  It theorizes that we can learn by relating concepts based on similarity, opposition, distinction, hierarchy, analogy and temporality, among others.  In doing so, we affect our ability to use analogy, develop intelligence, and practice perspective taking. (Stewart, 2016)  So overall, this theory identifies how we use abstract ideas, develop the ability to have empathy, learn and create.  These are the behaviors that make us human; that give us the ability to communicate verbally with others, write books, create art, build bridges and move mountains.  These behaviors allow us to connect with others, build relationships and show empathy, understanding and compassion.  This is also where things break down, where we become stuck, rigid, fearful, anxious and avoidant.  You may have heard of the term cognitive flexibility.  RFT analyzes the behaviors that allow us to be flexible in our thinking, and also explains why we get so stuck and inflexible.  RFT has been tested and rigorously researched.  It has been studied in a lab where they have been able to create inflexibility as well as undo it.  (Stewart, 2016)

So what do you do when you figure out how the mind ticks, or rather comes to a screeching halt?  If you are Steven Hayes you create a therapy to re-build flexibility.  Hayes first published on Acceptance and Commitment therapy in 1999.  ACT identifies a framework of six core strategies that work to re-build cognitive flexibility.  These principles are self as context, values, contact with the present moment, cognitive diffusion, committed action, and acceptance. (Hayes, 2004)  Therapists utilizing ACT will teach clients skills to improve mindful awareness and ability to focus on the present moment, encourage willingness (acceptance) of internal experiences, cognitive diffusion skills to separate self from thoughts, and encourage development of values and action steps in service of those values.

These core principles and skills map nicely into equine assisted psychotherapy work.  It is important to understand that there are two layers on which these principles can be applied.  Lets look at the first layer: the therapist intervention.

A mental health professional could utilize specific activities to build skills such as mindfulness and cognitive diffusion as well as to help clients discover their values and practice committed actions.  ACT in and of itself is an experiential therapy utilizing metaphors and activities to explain the core concepts.  These metaphors can be taught and adapted to use in the arena.  By utilizing activities designed to teach basic skills, the basic tenants of ACT are at work and its heavily researched and highly effective process reaches your client.  Activities such as asking the client to breath with the horse, match their footsteps to the horse, or basic grounding or mindful walking activities can be used to teach mindfulness skills.  Diffusion is easily applied when processing, repeating a phrase or concept back to the client and inserting “so you were having the thought that…” or by utilizing a client’s metaphor to separate a concept from themselves.  From this we can develop self as context as well.  Ask the client to move a horse they have labeled as “broken,”  then process what it was like to move that, to see that it is separate from their self-identity.  We can set obstacles to represent goals and ask clients to move horses identified as their values toward those goals.  Activities such as this often uncover incongruence between what a client says they value an what they actually work toward.  Clients will often find themselves stuck until they find a resolution.

Some may be looking for a magic set of activities, but I find it more effective to teach the skills and metaphors and then work with what the client brings.  Pretty much any activity can lead to valuable material when ACT concepts are applied.

There is a deeper level where movement happens for our clients.  RFT and ACT play a part which I will examine in Part II.



Stewart, Ian. (2016). The fruits of a functional approach for psychological science. International Journal of Psychology, 51(1), 5-27.

Hayes, S. (2004). Acceptance and Commmitment Therapy, Relational Frame Theory, and the Third Wave of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. Behavior Therapy 35, 639-665.