Equine Facilitated Learning and Psychotherapy at Hearts

By DeeDee Conrad on May 31, 2021 at 03:18 PM in Stories From the Barn

Equine Facilitated Learning and Psychotherapy at Hearts

By Diana M. Ferrari M.A., L.M.F.T.

The month of May is Mental Health Month.Each year, the National Association of Mental Health releases a theme addressing the country's mental health issues. "Tools 2 Thrive" is this year's theme, chosen to recognize the anxiety shared by most people regarding our world pandemic. 

COVID-19 has brought attention to the mental health needs of every person, and I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to share about Equine Facilitated Learning and Psychotherapy (EFL/P) at Hearts. EFL/P utilizes horses experientially to nurture individual emotional growth and learning. Participants learn how to establish a positive relationship with their horse during each session. Using these skills, they experience increased self-esteem, empowerment, confidence, and self-compassion. What a way to connect to the month's theme, "Tools 2 Thrive"! 

"Tools 2 Thrive" is what Hearts' mission is all about: inspiring, strengthening, and motivating children and adults with special needs through their connection with equine partners. How someone establishes that connection is the basis of EFL/P. As a marriage and family psychotherapist, I believe it is the relationship that heals. I have helped families, couples, and individuals navigate the components of positive, respectful, and empathic communication during troubled times. 

Whether riding or walking with a horse, effective communication must take place. A horse looks to its human companion for direction and leadership. These are skills and qualities that someone can use with families, friends, and colleagues, too. 

In the last six years, I have added an equine component to my psychotherapy practice. Equine Facilitated Learning and Psychotherapy is about teamwork. My partner Lauren Hayes, M.A., ES (Equine Specialist), is present at every session to make sure the horse is safe and treated respectfully. Together with our equine "co-therapist," we allow participants to learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses. The work is done from the ground, meaning there is no riding involved. We stand or walk with our horse, who teaches us to watch closely, listen carefully, and breathe deeply. Horses also teach us about comfort and safety. 

Recently, a 10-year-old client I am working with wanted to say hello to the horse, despite his fears of getting his hands dirty and contracting COVID-19. In the round pen, he cautiously offered his tight fist to Reno (horse). He stood so far away from Reno that Reno had to stretch his neck out, almost falling forward to make contact. Slowly the client relaxed his hand and became absorbed in being with his horse. He learned to gently push Reno's muzzle away if he got too close. Reno gave my client lots of opportunities to establish his boundaries and practice feeling empowered. Reno began to touch my client's tummy with the tip of his muzzle. My client, now giggling at each touch, would push his cheek away. It became a game: Reno's muzzle and my client's tiny hand. Reno patiently asked to connect, and my client had the opportunity to decide how close Reno got to him. He no longer approached Reno with an anxious, clutched fist. My client stood taller within a short time, moved closer to his horse, and smiled broadly. 

Get to know your horse on the ground and discover something new about yourself. If you or someone you know is interested in EFL/P, you may contact Kristen, Hearts' program manager, at 805-364-5206 or [email protected]. Or, you may contact Diana directly; information is listed below.

Diana M. Ferrari M.A., L.M.F.T.

[email protected]


Photography by Emily Hart-Roberts

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