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My Journey to Equine-Assisted Experiential Learning…

Posted by on July 30, 2012

It took the curiosity of a counseling student from Prescott College to help me make sense of the last decade and the transition I made from writer/editor in the publishing business to  opening an equine-assisted facility for learning and psychotherapy… Her interview questions were provocative and got me to finally sit down and reflect on the strange turns and unexpected richness that comes from following your heart.

Q: If you could choose one event in your life that set you on your path to becoming involved in equine-assisted psychotherapy, what would it be?

A: Oddly enough, it was getting fired from a job that I had ardently loved—writing for and editing a horse magazine—and realizing that what I really wanted to do at that point was work with people and horses in a more healing and experiential environment. At first, I thought this was going to look more like becoming a natural horsemanship instructor, but that was just the start of my journey.

Bonnie and Nikki at work

Shortly after becoming unemployed, I took an online interactive course called The Labyrinth that was created and facilitated by Dr. Stephanie Burns ( She was the adult education expert that Pat and Linda Parelli turned to when they began to provide Parelli Natural Horsemanship in home study courses. Stephanie has a Ph.D. in Adult Education, bases out of Sydney, Australia, and wrote the book Come Closer, Stay Longer which chronicles Burns’ own struggles to learn to horseback ride despite a phobic fear of all things equine. The Labyrinth is a course in self-leadership and, while it isn’t specifically about horses or for the equine-assisted community, completing the daily tasks allowed me to clarify what it was I wanted to do with horses and people. It was also my first exposure to how exciting experiential learning could be.

At that time, I only knew of the NARHA (now PATH) model of horse therapies, but I soon discovered that there were a variety of groups doing the kind of work I had in mind, namely working with mood and mental disorders. I found my way to an EAGALA training in Reno, Nevada and knew that I had found a solid direction.

Q: Why did you choose to align your practice with EAGALA?

The great thing about the EAGALA model for people just starting to do equine-assisted work is that it is a clearly stated model. There will be two or more facilitators, one covering the equine responsibilities and one covering the mental health responsibilities. It is very hard to misunderstand the practice, once you have been through the all six days of the full training (Parts 1 and 2). Now, you may disagree with EAGALA policies (for instance, there are some people who don’t see the need for a mental health facilitator when doing straight experiential education) but Lynn Thomas has made it very clear that an EAGALA team will always contain a licensed mental health professional. I’m not so deluded that I don’t know a lot of other types of equine-related therapies are going on without licensed staff. The point is, EAGALA closely follows the cognitive behavioral therapy model, which means a lot when you are doing third party billing.

The therapeutic horse-human bond

Q: How did you choose your equine partners?

A: Oh, I held nation-wide auditions…lol. Actually, I use a combination of the horses I previously kept for lessons and horses I’ve rescued from situations. My feeling is that most horses can do the EAGALA model, as it is very undemanding of the animal. Basically, a horse can’t be aggressive or too naughty toward people (i.e. offering to kick or bite without provocation). I’ve only made one exception to that rule: When my AQHA gelding Travis first arrived, I had the idea to use him as a dual lesson/therapy horse, as I’d done with a couple of others. However, the first time a group of people approached him at liberty, his response was to gnash his teeth, shake his head, and jump at them like he was cutting a bunch of cows! Of course, once everyone jumped back, his ears came forward and he looked at them curiously. We’re pretty sure he had never been loose in an arena with a group of people before (he had been a performance horse with about a decade of reining and cutting under his belt) and this new experience was blowing his mind. That was two years ago and he has since learned to be more comfortable with the liberty work (he’s always been well-mannered when haltered or under saddle). He’s the one I use as an object lesson when the adjudicated kids first arrive. They see he’s kind of this bad-ass and they need to negotiate a peace treaty. Then they see that it’s all an act and we get to talk a little about attitude and external appearances.

Q: What has been your biggest roadblock in establishing and maintaining your practice?

A: As gas has grown more expensive, the drive out to my ranch from Prescott and the quad-city area has become a roadblock to individual one-hour sessions. That’s why I do mostly groups in 2-plus-hour blocks right now and am creating some full-day and weekend retreats that I think would be a good fit for my place. I have a bunkhouse for overnight accommodations as well as grounds that allow for comfortable daylong workshops. Also, the overhead to running an equine-assisted facility is prodigious. The ideal therapy herd is 4-6 horses; factor in feed, vetting, and farriery and it’s not a great business model from an economic standpoint. To be honest, I always envisioned being part of a consortium, where different therapy teams could come in and work on different days. I don’t know of too many people in this area who are working at full capacity and it would just make sense to consolidate resources.

Q: Can you describe your most poignant learning experience in your equine-assisted work?

Paloma in flight

A: One of the hardest tasks as an Equine Specialist is to mentally and emotionally separate yourself from your herd in order to allow for the process of discovery. I had avoided using my draft/cross Premarin rescue Paloma for any close-up work, especially with kids, as she can be highly reactive and spooky. We think this is a problem with her vision—her eyes appear mismatched. This had really set back her general training and usefulness and I had mainly been using her for liberty work—Life’s Little Obstacles in particular—since she is quite the jumper.

Then one day, we had a group of detention kids and I had them pair up and sent them to the horse pens to choose a horse and bring it back. Paloma’s pen was way in back and it didn’t occur to me that anyone would walk past other horses to get to her. When the smallest two in the group, “David” and “Maria”, ended up at Paloma’s stall my heart sank. I moseyed over to where the three were standing, the horse sniffing at their hands. I watched as the boy inched the lead rope over the towering mare’s neck and waited to see what she would do. Normally, she waits until she feels the halter start to slide onto her nose and then raises up to her full 16.2 height, eyes wild, nostrils flared. However, somehow it must have felt differently to her than the training sessions with me, because the kids managed to slowly coax her head into the halter and fasten it up. Was it that they hadn’t brought any trepidation or negative outcome expectations into the pen with them? I hovered as “Maria” led the mare out to the grooming station in the arena. Paloma stood quietly as she was brushed and even allowed her feet to be handled—tasks that had been sources of contention for years. Periodically, she would sniff their heads and then look over at another horse as if to say, “See? I finally got some kids of my own!” Eventually my attention drifted to other teams until, later, I caught a glimpse of “David” leading Paloma through the obstacle course. When Paloma stepped regally up on the two-foot high platform and posed, I don’t know who was prouder—kid or horse. I made a mental note not to prejudge my horses’ abilities and to always, always stay open to the possibility of transformation.

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