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