Skip to main content

Equine Assisted Mental Health Program SUMMER 2015

This summer, the Oliver program participated in a 6 week equine program co-facilitated by Laurie Linsley, MS, MFT-A the unit clinician, Lynn Paterna, LPC, Angela Schumacher, MSW, LCSW, Associate Director of Residential Services and Dr. Bruce Smith, PhD, Psychologist.

The goals of Equine Assisted Mental Health Programs are to improve self awareness by using hands on activities, objective feedback and processing of experiences. Its foundation is based off experiential therapy theory and adds horses to the mix to provide a non-human connection for the purposes of getting immediate responses and feedback. Body language and behavior are recognized and discussed, allowing the participant to make their own interpretation of the situation. Facilitation is best done with mental health professionals who have horse knowledge. In most cases, two facilitators are involved, one a licensed therapist and the other a horse expert. The ideal situation, which we had, is that both facilitators are competent in both areas.

Laurie and Lynn have worked together for over 15 years in various programs offering horseback riding lessons and therapy programs. The following is how we organized the program:
We reviewed all treatment plans and created a list of common goals and created themes based off the goals. We then designed activities to promote themes and used the same structure for each group.
Themes: Mindfulness, Boundaries, Trust, Attachment, Honest Communication, Relationship Building, Self-Esteem, Accomplishment, and Saying Goodbye. Themes were also brought into group therapy, individual therapy and family therapy. For example – when learning about building trust with horses, our students processed how they can begin to re-build trust with families and discussed this in all therapy sessions the following week.

The structure of the group was like this:
Opening Circle - Group Ritual (pass around a horse shoe and do a check in) - Introduction of themed activity of the day - Group Activity to promote trust, cohesion, self-awareness - Equine Assisted Activity - Group Processing - Journaling – Lunch - Closing Circle

Most activities were done at ground level however toward the end of summer students had an opportunity to ride the horses in a structured and organized lesson. There was a canopy/tent with chairs in a circle for students and facilitators to meet and process the activities of the day in privacy. A sack lunch was provided for students to eat lunch while observing the horses in a herd environment. Dry erase boards and other props were used to teach the theme/lesson of the day.
Each week was a different theme with all themes melding into the next week, building upon one another. After introducing the theme of the day cooperative group activities related to each theme were performed outside the arena without horses. The Equine Assisted Activity was related to the theme as well and was a group or individual based activity with the horses. Metaphors were used to promote understanding and learning. Processing occurred after or during the activities. Journaling was done at the site with each student having their own journal to write in. One topic related to the theme was offered for the journaling activity. Each student brought their chair to a place outside the arena away from the others to journal. Students and facilitators then came back to tent for lunch and a closing circle and students were asked to share one metaphor and how it related to their life away from group.

Here are some journal entries:

“I was very careful to have good boundaries with Deshka because I want a good relationship with her. I think I slowly gained her trust while cleaning her with the brushes.”

“As far as boundaries go, I did not look at her while she was peeing. Also, I respected her and praised her. She followed me where I wanted to go! I would say I earned trust from her to enter her boundaries.”

“It took patience for the horse to trust me. I felt that when I was walking the horse, that if I gave it more slack in the rope, like a foot away, I was in the appropriate place and I was not in the horse’s boundaries.”

“I had a good day today. I had a lot of fun grooming Charlie and walking him around. I had to build trust with him and get him to respect my boundaries.”

“As we were talking about the traits for trust I was interested because as I thought about it they were true. Empathy, integrity, honesty, reliability and investment/caring. I think they all work to gain trust. I was nervous to go first because I didn’t really know what to do, but I had fun leading George around.”

“I learned that it takes a lot of time and honesty to get the trust back. I found out that the biggest part of my trust is honesty and the second biggest is integrity.”

“I learned that we have to have a certain amount of trust for the horses to listen to us and do what we say and the horses have trust they can give us in return.”