FARMINGTON — Psychiatrist Julia Temple has been seeking ways to lift her professional practice, and when she attended an equine-assisted therapy workshop Thursday, the horses all but threw the answer in her face.
Temple was among more than 400 mental health professionals who attended the 16th annual international conference for EAGALA — Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association — to learn the powerful therapy potential of horses.
During an exercise meant to demonstrate that power, Temple and a handful of other mental health professionals stepped into an arena with four free-roaming, rambunctious horses. At her disposal was an array of props: cardboard boxes, foam noodles, hula-hoops. Everyone assigned symbolic meaning to their props when they were told to interact with the horses as if they were clients.
Temple, with her work on her mind, symbolically deemed a cardboard box her office. And when not one but two horses grabbed her box in their mouths and tossed it away from her, she clearly knew their message.
“They were telling me to get out of the office more,” Temple said.
That’s the ambition of EAGALA — to provide an alternative to in-office talk therapy and set a professional standard for equine-assisted therapy, said Lynn Thomas, the nonprofit association’s executive director and founder.
“People are looking for something that’s going to be more helpful than just sitting in an office,” Thomas said. “We have a lot of therapists who come through our training who are really burned out, and when they learn (EAGALA), it rejuvenates them and their belief in their work.”
She said mental health professionals have been becoming less skeptical of equine-assisted therapy since EAGALA was founded in 1997.
EAGALA, which is based in Santaquin, has more than 4,500 members from 50 countries, Thomas said. Its therapy model consists of non-mounted activities with horses that involve obstacles and props used in metaphorical ways under the supervision of certified equine specialists and licensed mental health professionals.
Clients are able to receive uniquely individualized therapy sessions because they are set free to interact with the horses freely under symbolic contexts, Thomas said.
“So the next thing you know, those horses become your spouse, your children, your co-workers, your fears or your goals, and they play out exactly what’s going on in people’s lives,” she said.
Jenny Pacanowski, who works in Warrior Camp, a Trauma and Resiliency Resources therapy program geared toward war veterans that uses the EAGALA model, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after she was deployed in 2004 to serve in Iraq for almost a year as a combat medic for the Army, Air Force and Marines.
Pacanowski said she tried seven years of talk therapy, but it wasn’t until 2013 when she started EAGALA’s equine-assisted therapy that she began to truly heal. She said horses taught her to stop hiding behind a mask and be true to her emotions. And once she learned it was OK to show her pain, she was able to confront her demons, Pacanowski said.
Now she experiences fewer flashbacks and she has overcome depression and addiction problems.
“It brought my humanity back,” Pacanowski said.
Thomas said horses are special therapy facilitators because they have evolved as prey animals to be sensitive to nonverbal cues of other living things, especially predatory beings like humans. When people interact with them, the horses respond to behavior in ways that make people realize things about themselves that they might not even be aware, she said.
“They can serve as a reflection because when they act in response to us. It’s almost like we’re looking in a mirror and seeing ourselves from another perspective that we hadn’t noticed before,” Thomas said.
Horses in some ways force people to change their attitudes or behavior to successfully complete tasks during equine therapy sessions, she said, whether a client aims to simply approach the horse or direct the horse through an obstacle.
Thomas said horses add a dynamic to therapy that is difficult to accomplish in an office just through talk therapy because talking about issues doesn’t necessarily push people to change their behavior.
“Horses don’t care about what you say verbally,” she said. “They respond to what you do, and so the horses aren’t going to change until you change inside.”
Melanie Habibian, executive director of Falcon Ridge Ranch, a treatment center in Virgin that uses the EAGALA model for adolescent girls, said sometimes office therapy can be highly personal, high-pressure and intimidating, especially to people who carry emotional pain that is too overwhelming to put to words.
Habibian said she sees “daily miracles” with equine-assisted therapy in her clients, who often suffer from traumatic experiences such as sexual abuse and struggle with low self-esteem.
She said the horses offer an “out-of-the-box, nonjudgmental therapy” that can be difficult to obtain in an office setting. The horses even find solutions in ways therapists wouldn’t otherwise expect, Habibian said.
“Horses are very intuitive,” she said. “They can mirror what we are or what we need.”
For a list of EAGALA providers in Utah, visit www.eagala.org.