Right from the Horses Mouth: Equine Assisted Therapy with Mental Health Patients Works!


Join us for a discussion about the therapeutic benefits of using horses in Behavioral Health therapy.  All of us at Mental Health News Radio are animal lovers with a passion for animal-assisted therapy. Our very own Melanie Vann will be co-hosting a series of radio shows interviewing the passionate human beings that devote their time to this unique therapeutic effort. Our guests, Kristin Fitzgerald and Melanie Vann, discuss the benefits, roots, and models for Equine Assisted Therapy. More information is included in their accompanying blog article.

We’ve never done a show like this one!


reinsofhopeeagalaShare a little about the history of using equines as tools for therapy. The domestication of the horse can be traced back to Kazakhstan 3500-3000 BC when Archeologist found traces of wear on the teeth of horses due to some type of bit. Of course most can recall the drawings of horse drawn chariots in Mesopotamia which was around 2000 BC. The therapeutic use of horses can be dated back to 460 BC with Hippocrates. His writing notated the benefits of horse riding and relationship to physical and mental well-being. Hippocrates called riding “Natural Exercise” that benefited the mind body and spirit.

Early studies to prove the benefits of spending time with horses and riding officially started around 1875 with a OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrench Neurologist who determined that riding improved balance, motion and muscle control and also the mood of his patients. In the 1940’s during the outbreak of Polio, horses were introduced by an Olympian, Liz Hartel, that found her relationship and riding her horse greatly improved her Polio.  In the 1960’s CARD, or the Community Association of The Disabled and NARHA North American Riding for the Handicapped Association formed. EAGALA, the organization that Kristin and I are certified through, was founded in 1999. They are the leading international non-profit association that certifies professionals in the use of equine therapy.

HulaHoopHorse_0eagalaHow does horse behavior relate to therapy? There are 2 key horse behavior traits that allow for horses to be a powerful psychotherapy modality; their herd mentality and their prey & survival instinct. Because horses have a strong herd desire, they view humans as potential herd members and have a natural inclination to want to forge a relationship with them to create a herd – so in every Equine Assisted Psychotherapy session, the horse(s) have a natural desire to work with the clients. The prey & survival instinctual behaviors horses have allow them to be extremely sensitive to their herd mates and to their environment, which makes them sensitive and responsive to a client’s shift in energy and emotions.

TakeAWalkeagalaWhy horses? The 2 key horse behavior traits that relate so well to therapy (Herd mentality and the prey & survival instincts) help to explain why horses provide such powerful bio-feedback to assist in a client’s therapy process. To explore this a bit more, the question here is why horses and not, say, dogs, who have a very comparable “pack” to “Herd” mentality (both a bonding and social survival behavior that are equally strong and applicable to humans). Though dogs have amazing and undeniable therapeutic qualities that compliment psychotherapy and counseling sessions in healing ways, it is different from what horses have to offer. The difference comes from the horses’ innate and instinctual behaviors of being a prey animal. Being a prey animal means they must embrace higher sensitivities. These sensitivities drive their social and emotional sensitives. The way a horse responds to a client’s emotions is different than a dog or a cat. A horse will respond to emotional shifts in a client differently than a dog would. Why? Because a horse views humans who are in a non-congruent state as the possible unpredictable predator that they are. We are in fact, considered predators to horses. YET – when we show them congruency, they are always willing to accept us into a ‘dialogue’ or ‘conversation’ with them to form a friendship which becomes the social foundations of a ‘herd.’

FBeagalaphotoWhat is EAP? EAP, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, uses horses experientially for those suffering from mental and behavioral disorders or as a tool for interpersonal development. It’s a collaborative effort between a therapist who is licensed or licensed eligible that EAGALA coined the MHP (Mental Health Professional), and a horse professional, or the ES (Equine Specialist), working to address treatment goals. EAP is intense and effective, therefore it is known as a brief solution- focused approach. The participants learn about themselves and others or how they react to others by participating in activities with the horses. Then with the help of the therapist, they process their feelings or behavioral patterns. The horses give immediate feedback to the person experiencing the therapy because horses often mirror human behavior and see through pretenses to the real issue underneath and respond to the truth not what the person is perceiving or portraying as the truth. The focus of EAP is not riding. Often it involves setting up ground activities that require the client to apply certain skills. Horses communicate non-verbally, so working with them helps the client become more aware of their own non-verbal communication (which some say are 90 percent of how we communicate), helps develop leadership, creative and problem solving skills, teamwork and relationship, confidence, and attitude awareness. EAL, Equine Assisted Learning, is similar to EAP but focuses more on learning and educational goals. EAL is often used in group sessions, improving sales for a company, resiliency training, or conflict resolution. Monty Roberts pioneered a lot of this work.

reinsofhope-missionExplain to us what the EAGALA MODEL represents: The EAGALA model is a structure and standard for conducting EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy) and EAL (Equine Assisted learning).

The Model is summarized in 4 key ways:

1) Team approach – A mental health professional, an Equine Professional, and the horse(s).

2) Focus on the ground – there is no riding involved.

3) Solution Orientated, the belief is that the client has their own best solutions.

4) Code of ethics The EAGALA Model of EAP & EAL is an experiential Process.

Experiential experiences basically have 3 key ingredients. There is a ‘DO’ which is to experience the activity and do it. Then there is a “REFLECT” which is sharing and processing; reacting in the moment, observing, and gaining self- awareness. The last part is “APPLYING & CONNECTING,” where clients generalize and find their own metaphors to connect the experience to their current real life and real world examples and situations. The horses provide the in-the-moment bio feedback to the clients; something that is not so easily accessible in office ‘talk’ sessions.

Eagala Logo FINAL 2-TAGWhat does an EAGALA Session look like? A client comes to a session, which is normally an enclosed arena like area with at least one, two, three, or possibly more horses. There is a ‘check in’ with the treatment team, (the mental health professional and the equine professional) and a simple task or activity is given to the client to accomplish with the horses. A very important aspect to an EAGALA session is that the treatment team steps out and away from the clients interactions and follow through with the activity. The treatment team allows for the client and the horses to interact with out their input as much as possible. The treatment team is trained to look for ‘peak’ moments, in which they would maybe then engage in a client(s) and process. The Equine Professional communicates key horse interactions and behaviors to the mental health professional; providing valuable bio-feedback. After some processing with the treatment team, sometimes a client is encouraged to continue to go back and interact with the horses and sometimes the processing is talk time that is therapeutically important. The EAGALA model firmly believes that the client has their own best solutions, so the treatment team is trained to allow for this during the processing. The mental health professional and the equine specialist find a moment to therapeutically close a session and are trained to continue and connect each session so it addresses the therapeutic goals of the client.

What have some of your EAP session looked like? As I stated earlier the possibilities are endless. Some Rocky 2sessions consist simply of asking the client to go out in a pasture and halter a horse. Some sessions may just be grooming sessions. Others are more planned and executed. For example, the client may be asked to build an obstacle course out of various barn tools and objects that represents areas in their life that are holding them back or they view as obstacles. Then they may be asked to guide the horse through the course without the use of a halter and without touching it. A wounded warrior may simply participate in Join up, a trust building activity that is utilized by many horse trainers. I have held sessions where I have ask a client to simply walk a horse in and out of a stall. EAP is all about metaphors. So you create opportunities for the client to make connections about their work with the horses and their life. The therapist is there to watch the client and help them through their own processing, while the Equine Specialist watches the horse for any moments of congruency. As Kristin talked about earlier, if she sees a horse touch a person with their nose during a session this would let her know that in that moment, there was congruency within the persons mind, body, and spirit. Not all horses are cut out to be therapy horses. It can be simply overwhelming for some of them while others thrive on helping clients unveil their weaknesses or inconsistencies.

What is the treatment population for the use of equine therapy? The possibilities are endless. Winston Diamonds 2Churchill stated that “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of the man”. EAP can be used for depression and anxiety. Spending time with horses or even watching them graze has been shown to decrease heart rate and blood pressure. Many of you have probably heard of the use of horses while working with PTSD and wounded warriors. Behavioral issues can be addressed with the use of EAP as well as developmental delays and special needs. The possibilities are endless. There are programs for women who have been in abusive relationships or children who have been abused. I originally started equine therapy to help my clients who suffered from Eating Disorders. Many eating disorder treatment facilities have an equine element to their treatment plan. Locally, here in Powhatan VA we have an equine facility located within our prison system that helps rehab prisoners. There is no limit to the benefits that equine therapy can facilitate. Because it is experiential in nature it can be tailored to any situation. Some of my favorite work involving EAP is with families who have suffered trauma or abuse.

Rocky 3Do you have any sessions that stick out in your mind? I have several sessions that stick out in my mind specifically. I had one client that was being bullied at school and it was affecting her negatively as she was experiencing as anxiety about going to school. While she worked with my horse, I noticed my horse was somewhat more aggressive than she normally is with clients. She nipped at her occasionally, pushed her buttons per see. This allowed me to help the young woman learn how to stand up for herself in school because she had to present herself in a way that let my horse know that this type of behavior was not acceptable. My horse did not let up, session after session, until the young woman learned to bring the energy to the session that she needed to be a leader and to have boundaries for the safety for herself and the horse. You truly never know what will present itself in a session. You may plan a session but then the horse provides an opportunity for something else very essential to be worked out. The horse is by far the better therapist as they see through our humanness. Another session that stands out in my mind is my first client I took to the farm. This young woman had been in my office for almost a year struggling with severe anorexia. She was home schooled, over compliant, innocent, and generally passive in our in office sessions. When I took her to the farm to groom my horse, she immediately displayed controlling behavior. She clenched the brush tightly and was in general rigid. Rigidity is often a contributing factor to anorexia so you see the metaphor. Rigidity would get her nowhere with my horse so in order to build the relationship with the horse she had to learn how to be less rigid which eventually worked its way into her general life. With Eating Disorders specifically, the horses offer a nonjudgmental relationship for patients. The horses are not worried about the client’s appearance or how much they weigh which is generally something that is always on an ED clients mind. This allows for the client to have a relationship without rejection or criticism. The truth immediately reveals itself as soon as you step into space with the horse. Often times clients spend their entire lives avoiding or convincing themselves of a lie so you can see how beneficial the biofeedback and mirroring of the horse helps the client come to a place of authenticity in their lives. Of course the most important part of EAP is the undeniable emotionally safe environment it creates to facilitate healing.

Rocky 1Share with us some empirical research that supports equine therapy. The experiential nature of EAP makes it difficult to measure, however, there have been studies to support the use of horses in therapy. In the book “Horse Sense and the Human Heart: What Horses Can Teach Us About Trust, Bonding, Creativity, and Spirituality”, McCormick and McCormick (1997) describe various case studies where young people with severe behavioral problems were helped by working with horses. Some other books you may want to invest in if you are interested in learning more about EAP or horse behavior are Monty Roberts’s book “The Man Who Listens to Horses” and “Harnessing the Power of Equine Assisted Counseling: Adding Animal Assisted Therapy to Your Practice” by Kay Sudekum Trotter. Another intriguing book is “Soul Recovery: Equine Assisted Activities for Healing from Abuse from Others by Others, Loss of others & Loss of Self” by Joy Nussen.

Our Guests:

17151_1113010925472_3649231_nKristin A. Fitzgerald, Equine Professional and EAGALA Equine Specialist, started riding horses at a young age. Her once weekly lessons became daily rides and then her riding became serious when she started competing and showing. Throughout middle school and high school, horses helped her develop a sense of responsibility and a work ethic that has stayed with her all her life. In her senior year of high school she volunteered with a therapeutic riding program. It was there that a passion for helping people and working with horses fused together.

In 2003 Kristin became certified as a riding instructor through The Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA), which launched her Equine Professional status. For many years she taught kids and adults of all ages, rode a variety of horses, and over all helped her students how to have a relationship with horses.

From 2008 thru 2014, Kristin spent each year wisely, slowly growing herself a foundation that fed her passion for bringing horses and people together. From 2009-2011 she spent time as the volunteer Equine Director for a newly formed non-profit called New Hope on 4 Hoofs in Midlothian Virginia. New Hope on 4 Hoofs is a non-profit ministry organization, and was developing an equestrian program geared up to give grieving children healing respite time by spending it with horses.

In 2010 she completed her first EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association) training course and has since completed a total of three EAGALA training courses and is now fully certified in the EAGALA model.

In 2014, Kristin completed an Associate’s Degree in Science; Special emphasis in Behavioral studies, from Richard Bland College of William & Mary in Petersburg Virginia.

Keeping her forward momentum, Kristin recently started her own EAGALA services business, called Horse Highlights, LLC in Hanover County Virginia. Horse Highlights, LLC has since formed some exciting partnerships. Her partnership with Intuitive Journeys, PLC in Fredericksburg, Va is providing equine assisted services that compliments a newly formed PTSD Military/Veteran healing program. Kristin has also teamed up with a Richmond based non-profit group called The Gray Haven Project, where she and one of the organization’s mental health professionals are developing an EAP program for victims of sex-trafficking.

Questions for Kristin?

Melanie Vann

MelanieEquineTherapyBehavioral Health HIPAA Training, everythingEHR

Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology

AACC Certified Life Coach

EAGALA trained Equine Therapy

Questions for Melanie?

Melanie’s Bio

Kristin Sunanta Walker


Host Mental Health News Radio

CEO, everythingEHR

Working with her therapy dog, Buddy

Questions for Kristin?

Kristin’s Bio

Photo credit goes to:


Reigns of Hope, LLC

Horse Highlights, LLC


Melanie Vann


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