Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
Willow Pond Ranch's Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning. It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals. The treatment team sets up activities for the clients to undertake involving the horses, which are designed to be challenging, reflecting the idea that only when people are challenged do they have the capacity to change. The treatment team facilitates and encourages clients to gain insight on behavior patterns that may reflect behaviors outside the ranch. In EAP there is no “right” or “wrong”, only how each client feels they have completed the task.
A common question we hear is, “Why horses?” The answer has many parts. Children who have been victims of domestic violence have been hurt by adults and have lost trust in them. They have pulled back from society. They can begin to build relationships though their connection with horses. These rescued animals have been castaways, reflecting the situation of the youths, who are able to identify with them.
EAP is a powerful form of therapy. When compared to “traditional talk therapy”, studies have found it more effective in reaching its therapeutic goals. Some studies attribute this to the fact that horses provide a form of biofeedback that helps clients figure out how to change things within themselves (Shultz, 2005). Lynn Thomas, LCSW, co-founder of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, agrees. “Horses react to our body language. This gives immediate feedback to what people are communicating non-verbally. Participants learn that if they want to change the horse’s behavior, they have to change their own behaviors, thoughts, and feelings.” Sharon North-Pohl holds an advanced EAGALA Certification.
The values of assertiveness, communication, and healthy relationships have long been recognized as challenges for victims of domestic violence. Horses naturally provide these benefits. Horses are large and powerful, which creates a natural opportunity for many to overcome fear and develop confidence. Horses are very much like humans in that they are social animals. They have defined roles within their herds. They would rather be with their peers. They have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods. In other words, horses provide vast opportunities for metaphorical learning. Using metaphors, in discussion or activity, is an effective technique when working with even the most challenging individuals or groups.
The horses of Willow Pond, active participants in the therapy, share a powerful link to the children we serve: every one of them had been abandoned, neglected, abused, or otherwise unwanted and through our rehabilitative efforts, have found new and productive lives here.
What kinds of outcomes do you see in your EAP participants?
We see: noticeable improvement in therapy sessions, improved scores on Y-OQ assessment measures, and improved reports of behavior in children at home, school, and in their extracurricular involvements. Children that came to their first sessions angry, shut down, or scared are now confident, working well in sessions with their peers and the therapy team, putting their all into their time with the horses, and having fun!
Haven of Hope Homes, two local 6-bed group homes, brings residents to the barn on Sunday afternoons to participate in a service learning program, helping take care of the Ranch's rescued horses. We are planning on having a weekly group of six from their facilities, once their group is funded.
Where do your therapy clients come from?
Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) is our most active partner and collaborator at his point in time. CASA is an organization that supports and promotes court-appointed volunteer advocacy for abused and neglected children so that they can thrive in safe, permanent homes. Willow Pond has provided approximately 340 hours of therapy with CASA children over the last 10 months. We are currently providing therapy to a group of 6-8 CASA girls and another group of 6-8 boys. The Police Activities League (P.A.L) is a youth crime prevention program that relies on educational, athletic, and other recreational activities to cement a bond among police officers, recreation leaders, youth and their parents. Currently, PAL provides our therapy group with van transportation to and from weekly EAP session.
We have a child abuse group in our area. How does your work differ from other types of interventions?
The biggest difference of our program, compared to other children's domestic violence programs is the general nature of the work we do: not only do we work in a psychotherapy program, and not only do we have a pet therapy program, but our “pets” are half-ton, whinnying horses!
And to further set us apart from other children's domestic violence programs, Willow Pond Ranch is the only facility offering EAP in Santa Cruz County.