With hundreds of therapists looking on in the Alltech Arena at the Kentucky Horse Park, a group of strangers worked through an exercise in team building with three unbroken horses on Thursday morning.
They set a challenge for themselves, designed the way they would work in the horses and then discussed what the results illuminated for them.
That exercise mimicked what therapists who use the techniques of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association often see with their patients, said Ric Jerez, an EAGALA board member who practices psychotherapy in Lawton, Okla.
He was one of more than 600 in Lexington for the association’s 17th annual conference, which runs through Friday.
“Professionals from around the world come to learn more about how to incorporate horses for mental health and personal development,” said Lynn Thomas, EAGALA founder, adding attendees are from 45 states and 12 countries.
The EAGALA therapy model has been used with military veterans suffering from brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder to kids fighting drug addiction, with surprising levels of success, Jerez said. Mental health professionals and equine specialists often work together to facilitate the equine-assisted therapy.
“We’re in the helping profession. We try to help people deal with everyday life stresses, all the way to some severe psychopathology,” Jerez said. “EAGALA tries to present a very unique model in which we really never ride our horses but we use our horses by allowing clients to move them through the ring and experience horses in a very personal way in order for them for able to have an experience that enables them to work out whatever troubles they bring to the EAGALA session.”
The horses are usually unbroken but socialized, so they are as natural as possible, Jerez said. The dynamic between humans, who are predators, and horses, who are prey animals, is different from what one gets with other animals like dogs, he said.
The reactions that horses have from the interaction with patients often reveal what is going on within the patient, he said.
“Instead of having to spill my guts in front of you, I get to talk about what happened with the horse,” Jerez said. “It’s very useful for people in the military. I did many years in the Marine Corps and sometimes we’re very reserved. ... As I talk to you about what happened with the horse, I’m really telling you what happened to me.”
Misty Jones of The Bridges Program in Owensboro works with the local juvenile drug court to provide family therapy for about 120 people annually and she sees the same dynamic with her patients, she said.
“I think children in general identify so much with horses because of the personality similarities. Horses are very peer-driven, they’d rather be with their friends; they’re very fun-focused and don’t always want to do what they need to go do,” she said. “But most of all horses live in the moment. And most juveniles are not long-term planners.”
Putting horses and juveniles together for therapy “is more powerful even than with adults,” she said.
“The horse creates a mirror,” she said. “Horses read body language, those unspoken cues, things you’re not yet willing to say out loud. ... (That creates) a very powerful metaphor to see the action and behavior. ... It amazing to watch people come up with their own answers in that arena.”
For more information, go to EAGALA.org.