Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning


Research has shown that it is not so much the facts of our history that cause the problem as it is the deduction we form in response to traumatic life events (Carlson & Sroufe, 1995). Basically, the way we think impacts the way we feel and the choices we make. The healing of these troubling memories depends on a renewal of our mind and a transformation of our faulty belief structure. So often, however, we are plagued by recollections and conclusions that keep us prisoners of a maladaptive past.

So what does all of this have to do with Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)? The Equine Assisted Growth & Learning Association (EAGALA), non-riding EAP methodology does have some answers (EAGALA, 2006). EAGALA is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with clients to address treatment goals. In 2008, EAGALA was added as an adjunct therapy at the Family Attachment Center in Deephaven, MN. In 2010, an alliance was formed with the Horses Helping Humans organization to provide EAGALA EAP to battered women. The observations that follow are based on practice and research with children, adolescents and adults in individual and group sessions.

In every EAGALA session, the professionals introduce a structure or task that requires cooperation between the horse and client. The structure often provides a metaphor for solving a current life problem. Completion of the task is not as important as the problem solving process and the interaction between the horse and the client.

Horses are used because, as herd animals of prey, they accurately reflect the internal state of those around them. Because of their highly perceptive and sensitive nature, horses seem to mirror and respond to the thoughts, feelings and body language of the client. Often, they identify feelings and thoughts that the individual has not been aware of or has been trying to mask such as Fear, Guilt, Feelings of Inferiority and Anger. In turn, the client seems to spontaneously apply the response of the horse metaphorically to a personal circumstance or relationship. For instance, the behavior of the horse may represent the client’s own behavior or thinking or the behavior of someone in his/her world. As the client recognizes that the horse’s reflections are not motivated by human type ulterior motives, he/she is able to confidently process past interactions and form new, functional conclusions. It is the client, rather than the therapist, that makes the connection thus adding to the power of this new awareness.


Clearly, the EAP human-horse interaction promotes the ability of the client to “Mentalize.” To mentalize means that we verbally reach conclusions about our thinking and behavior that provide us with a sense of ownership and responsibility for our actions and our choices rather than feeling that our behavior just happens (Fonagy et al., 2002). Although research on the curative factors in EAP is still in process, response to the following research questions is encouraging:


  1. Have you become aware of any change in thinking patterns? (adults)
    • “That it’s alright for me to think how I want to feel safe.”
    • “I am realizing to ….trust my instincts, hold my ground, and set and enforce boundaries. I learned a lot….about healthy cooperation.”
    • “I get anxious and worry about what’s going to happen. Horses taught me to stay in the “now.”
    • “I was wrapped up in feeling out of control. I did not care. Now I care about things.”
    • “I used to impose limitations on myself and fail to try new things. Now I will think outside the box.”
    • “I don’t worry as much. No one will take care of me but me.”
    • “The horses made me aware of what I was feeling inside.”
    • “The horses allowed my mind to be free.”
  2. Did you come to any new insights about yourself ie. Thoughts, feelings, actions or goals. (children and adolescents)

    • “I need to decide who I can trust—my birth family or my adoptive family.”
    • “My parents are trying to help me.”
    • “I need to stay calm and think.”
    • “I can do the right thing.”
    • “The horses liked me and could see what is good in me.”
    • “I learned that horses and friends do not like it when I am angry and shout at them.”
    • “I learned I can trust some horses and some people.”
    • “I learned to be respectful and talk in a nice voice.”
    • “At first I felt angry and hated the horses but then I started to like them.”


A Poem by a 10 year old girl captures the therapeutic value of the horse-human interaction.

What is a Horse?

It’s who understands you

Better than anyone

Like—they read your mind.

A horse is an animal that knows

Not smart wise but feeling wise

Horses know if you are sad, angry or confused

A horse is like a radio that gets your waves


  • Carlson, E. A. & Sroufe, I. A. (1995). The contribution of attachment theory to developmental psychopathology. In D. Ciechetti & D. Cohen (Eds.). Developmental processes and psychopathology: Vol. I Theoretical perspectives and methodological approaches (pp. 581-617). New York: Cambridge University.
  • EAGALA (2006) Fundamentals of EAGALA model practice. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, Training and Certification Program. Santaquin: UT.
  • Fonagy, P., Gergely, G., Jurist, E. L., Target, M. (2002). Affect regulation, mentalization and the development of self. KARNAC. London: UK.
  • Parker, W. R., & St. Johns, E. (1957). Prayer can change your life. Prentice Hall: New York.