Beyond the Couch – An Introduction to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Written by: Vallerie E. Coleman, Ph.D.

Over the last couple years, interventions using horses have gained popularity due to media exposure and films such as Buck and Horse Boy.  However, as I share about the work I do, I find that most people are very confused about the different forms of Equine Therapy and many have never been exposed to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.

Often people hear the term Equine Therapy and assume this is the same thing as Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).  Typically, Equine Therapy refers to Therapeutic Riding, an intervention for differently-abled individuals designed to help them relax, develop muscle tone, coordination, confidence, and well-being.  In contrast, EAP, is a cutting-edge experiential, psychotherapeutic modality that can stand alone as a form of treatment or serve as a powerful adjunct to traditional psychotherapy.


It is not about riding or horsemanship. EAP typically takes place on the ground and is comparable to being in a live sand tray – where the interactions with horses provide clients with experiences and exercises that move them out of their comfort zone and into new ways of being and relating.  The EAP process uses experience, projection, and metaphor to help clients create change by integrating cognitive, emotional, and somatosensory processing.

EAP has proven to be a successful intervention with a wide variety of diagnoses and populations.  It initially gained recognition due to its success with clients who were unlikely to seek out therapy or had difficulty benefiting from traditional methods – such as substance abusers, at-risk youth, veterans, violent offenders, and children with autistic-spectrum disorders.  In recent years, it has been found to be an effective treatment for issues such as:

  • PTSD and Trauma recovery
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Couple and family conflict
  • Conduct and oppositional–defiant disorders
  • ADD and ADHD
  • Eating disorders
  • Anger management
  • Fears and phobias

Because “past experience is embodied in present physiological states and action tendencies” (Van der Kolk, 2006, p. xxiv) engaging with the horses offers immediate insight into how clients relate in the world as well as opportunities to shift those states and behavioral tendencies.  I often have clients referred to me by their therapists with the goal of using adjunctive EAP to help their clients decrease intellectualization, improve affect-regulation, reduce trauma symptoms, and gain insight into how their behaviors are often incongruent with what they say and know.

The work clients do in the arena is then taken back to be further processed with their therapist.  In addition, it can be very powerful for therapists to come out and observe their clients EAP session(s).  This offers clinicians direct information about the process and their client’s experience.

Why Horses?

Unlike humans, horses are prey animals.  As such, they have highly developed senses – smell, hearing, body-awareness, and vigilance – that keep them safe and in-tune with their environment.  This animal wisdom and their centuries-old connection with humans enable them to be powerful messengers that reflect back their experience of us.  Horses are completely congruent, authentic, and unbiased and they provide clear, direct, non-judgmental feedback about what they experience.  As a result, clients are challenged to be present in the moment and congruent in thought, affect and action.  This offers them opportunities to work on goals and dynamics in real time.  Areas that are commonly addressed include boundaries, assertiveness, trust, powerlessness, and frustration tolerance.

What does a session look like?

At Stand InBalance, EAP is either provided by a mental health professional (MH) who is also an equine specialist (ES) or it may be co-led by an MH and ES.  The professional(s) track clients’ affect and behaviors as well as their interaction with and feedback from the horses.  This information is then used to form verbal and non-verbal interventions.  The activities of a session may range from connecting, bonding and moving a horse with a halter and lead rope to building metaphorical challenges out of materials and having clients use personal power and intention to direct these large animals without a lead rope or physical touch.

Whether clients are engaged in individual or group activities, interacting with horses provides them with a powerful opportunity to work on intra-psychic and interpersonal dynamics – leading to shifts that can help them develop a healthier sense of self and healthier interpersonal relationships.

More information and references

Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association – www.EAGALA.org

van der Kolk, B. A. (2006). Foreword. In P. Ogden, K. Minton, & C. Pain (Eds.), Trauma and the body (pp. xvii – xxvi). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Vallerie E. Coleman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst with offices in Westlake Village and Santa Monica.  She is the founder and clinical director of Stand InBalance – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning located in Westlake Village, CA.  Dr. Coleman specializes in helping individuals and couples improve their lives and relationships through psychoanalytic psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.  She is certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association and her work is based in a combination of object relations theory, attachment theory, and somatic psychotherapy.  Dr. Coleman is passionate about horses and their ability to help humans embody their authentic selves.  To learn more about Stand InBalance visit www.standinbalance.com or contact Dr. Coleman at DrVal@StandinBalance.com or (310) 450-8136.