One June morning at HorsePlay in Kerhonkson, 10 of us stood in line in an outdoor arena, connected to one another with one long piece of string. Along the edge of the covered space, a sandy-colored horse munched peacefully on some red clover. Our facilitators—HorsePlay owner and equine specialist Cori Nichols and mental-health counselor Rosey Rouhana—had given us a mission: Coax the horse into the middle of the arena, and have it step or jump over a low obstacle. Yet what sounded like a simple exercise turned out to be more complicated than we thought. Each of us had to keep one hand on the string, and we could not touch the horse at all. Our group experimented with snaking our line in front of the horse and corralling her into the center, yet she neatly avoided the obstacle every time. Once she lifted a hoof as if to step over it—yet at the last moment she spooked, backed off, and ran away. After several failed attempts, we finally succeeded in getting "Hope" (the name we gave her) to jump over the obstacle. The group erupted in cheers, and Hope responded with a victory lap around the arena, bucking her hind legs and throwing her head back in what seemed like mutual celebration.
When Nichols and Rouhana invited us afterwards to tell about what happened, we spoke of our frustrations, the complications of group problem-solving, and the ultimate exhilaration of reaching a shared goal. One woman equated the experience to parenting, with the horse as a stand-in for a child: "Sometimes we push our agenda on our kids and want them to do certain things. When we stepped back and didn't push it but just made space for it, the horse flew over the obstacle." Others gleaned a different lesson, and it was easy to see how this simple exercise with this powerful animal could represent almost anything. Said one participant, "How you do this kind of thing is how you do your life."
That is exactly the philosophy behind equine-assisted learning (EAL) and equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), twin therapeutic practices that connect people with horses for experiential growth and healing. It's an approach that makes sense to Nichols, who has spent much of her life around horses and has often witnessed people problem-solving with the help of the fairy-tale animals. "It's an invitation to try to relate to another living being who is a lot bigger than you, and who for some reason you're drawn to," says Nichols, who became an EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) certified specialist and opened HorsePlay in 2015. Interacting with horses unmounted and on the ground (these therapies do not involve horseback riding), people discover things about themselves they did not know before, opening a door to new solutions.
"We're not asking [our clients], 'How do you feel?' We're saying, 'Tell us what happened out there? What are the horses doing?' That's when we get the most information, because people are describing themselves through the horses. There's a lot of projection going on," says Nichols. Through exercises that involve observation and engagement as well as metaphor and projection, equine therapy can be an effective alternative to traditional talk therapy, giving people insight into their own behaviors, patterns, and habits.
"We all agree in the field that talk therapy doesn't always get the results we want," says Rouhana, who collaborates with Nichols and also works outside the arena at Astor Services for Children and Families in Kingston and Ellenville. "Sometimes we need a bit of assistance to see something that might not be coming out verbally. It's an experiential therapy, which can be really useful when you're feeling stuck." The sheer size of a horse can be intimidating, but that in itself is part of equine therapy's unique power and usefulness, says Rouhana. "Being able to connect with that and learn from that—and being able to ask a horse to do something and have it do it—all of this can be very effective in overcoming feelings of intimidation and fear around big things in our lives."
Help for Boots on the Ground
It takes sizable strength to stand up to something as life-changing as post-traumatic stress disorder—and that's what Jimmy Downes facilitates every week at the Therapeutic Equestrian Center (TEC) in Cold Spring. On Fridays, Downes offers EAGALA-model services to postdeployment military veterans from the VA Hudson Valley Health Care System in Montrose. An equine specialist who works as a consultant through his own business, Relatively Stable LLC, Downes is also a certified substance abuse counselor who uses equine therapy to help people heal from addiction; in the past he used EAGALA-model services with survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012, helping families, teachers, and first responders deal with the emotional aftermath of the tragedy. "This is a solution-focused short-term therapy," says Downes. "We do activities that help the clients find their solutions. Our philosophy is that we believe all of our clients have their answers inside."