Equine Facilitated Learning & Equine Therapy

Debbie Woolf
Founder & Director, Stable Relationships, June 2015.





Equine facilitated learning and equine therapy are growing in popularity throughout the UK and other countries. In general terms they use horses and ponies to help people learn about challenges they may be facing, and explore ways to work through these challenges.

Differences in Approach

There are many types of equine facilitated learning and equine therapy. Equine facilitated learning looks at the here and now and focusses on educational goals such as learning about the names of feelings, or improving social skills. Equine therapy uses the horses/ponies to explore issues and challenges that may come up from the past.

Stable Relationships and its Unique Approach

Stable Relationships has created the first educational programmes aimed specifically for working with children, young people, and the adults who live and/or work with them. Our programmes are unique because they combine a range of horse based and creative activities so that all equine work is grounded and integrated. Our educational programmes have a solid foundation linked to research on attachment theory, brain development, and learning, making them especially effective for traumatised young people and the adults who live and/or work with them.

Horses as Prey Animals

Our programmes are based on the fact that a horse is a prey animal. Due to this, they process sensory information from the world around them, in a way that can be described as similar to the way a traumatised young person would process information. A horses’ first response to sensory information can often be a survival fight, flight, freeze response.

A traumatised child or young person, depending on their developmental level and experiences, can respond in the same way. An example of this is the way that a horse might be seemingly fully engaged in a riding lesson, but if a car pulls up 60 meters away, they can instantly notice, and freeze. They are hyper-vigilant to make sure that their environment is safe. This can be seen with traumatised young people too.

When working with a young person who was, seemingly, fully engaged in a creative session, someone asked the time from 2 rooms, and 2 closed doors, away. The young person shouted the time. He had been hyper-vigilant even though he had seemed perfectly engaged and calm. Another example could be a horse hearing a loud noise and having a huge flight response to it, when it would seem such a little thing. In a similar way, a teenager not being able to have the cereal they would like, can elicit a disproportionately emotional response.

Young People & Attachment

A young person who has developed a healthy attachment to primary caregiver will have a much less active fight, flight, freeze response. They will be able to process sensory information from the world around them in a way that does not activate the fight, flight, freeze response unless it is needed.

A young person who is traumatised, through having not had a ‘good enough’ attachment, is likely to experience delays and gaps in their development. The earlier they suffer trauma, and the longer it goes on for, the more automatic their fight, flight, freeze response will become.

When a person or horse is functioning from the fight, flight, freeze place, they are aware only of survival. This means they are unable to access the higher level parts of the brain needed for thinking about consequences, recognising and managing feelings, or putting words to their experience. When the response has become the natural way for a person to process sensory information, as it is for a horse, it can take a long time to learn a new way.

Capacity for change

However, people’s brains are capable of change! The way out of the response is to become calm. This may be easier said than done, but it can be done through changing the sensory input, and building relationships, and attachments. Horses help with this because they are perfectly attuned to a traumatised person’s way of processing sensory information, in the same way that a good caregiver is attuned to a baby’s early needs. Horses can act as a bridge between an adult trying to help and a young person trying to survive.

Horses can also help because in order to interact meaningfully with them, and build a relationship with them, people need to be congruent about their feelings. If a young person is feeling scared but unaware of this, or pretending to be confident, the horse will pick up on the incongruence. The incongruence will give the message that something is wrong, so the horse will be wary of building a relationship with the young person.

In the same way, if an adult is walking into a conflict situation with a young person, and pretending to be calm, but really feeling apprehensive, the young person will know and become more agitated. In this way young people and adults can become more able to recognise and modulate their emotions so that they are able to have the most meaningful interaction with the horse.

Sensory information processing

The similarities between processing sensory information between a horse and a person who is traumatised make horses excellent at teaching adults how to best work with traumatised young people. We use the horse as a metaphor for a young person and experience our own feelings, and the impact they have on us and the horses, as we work through set tasks.

Horses are excellent when working with young people because the young people have to become aware of their feelings, and learn to manage them, if they want to engage with the horses. It can be threatening for a young person to engage in discussions or activities that focus directly on their emotions or behaviours. When working with the horses this threat is removed because everything can be discussed in relation to the horse. For example, if a young person is learning how to help a horse feel calm, by default they will be learning to calm themselves. If they are trying to get a horse to trust them, they will be learning what it means, and feels like, to be trustworthy.

CASE STUDY (from our 12 week programme )
Abby is 15 years old. She is adopted and attends a special school for students with emotional and behavioural challenges. She has depression, agrophobia, ADHD, and is prone to aggression, according to her referral form. At school she is reported to sleep a lot. School wanted her to be able to manage her feelings better and ask for and accept help.

Abby didn’t want to leave the cabin for the first 2 sessions. She hardly spoke and was resistant to many of the creative activities. As the sessions progressed Abby’s confidence grew. She developed a much stronger relationship with her carer. By the third week she was chatty, keen to do any activity suggested, and starting to rely much more on her carer. During week 4 the task was to teach a horse a new skill. Abby was able to calm herself, so the horse would feel calm, and lead the horse up to strange objects, teaching it that they were safe. By the 6th week she felt totally comfortable around the biggest horse at the stables, and was able to assign qualities to the horses to describe and create her ‘herd’ to show us how she felt about the closest members of her family.

Outside of the sessions, school reported that she was completing more work, developing friendships, managing her feelings around anger, disappointment, and frustration, and taking part in all aspects of school life. By the end of the course Abby was asking for help from her carer whenever she felt unsure of anything. She was riding the biggest horse at the centre, and came in for the last session telling me how she had given a speech in front of the whole school assembly.

For more information about our courses please contact Debbie
Tel: 07866514106
Email: contact@stable-relationships.com
Web: www.stable-relationships.com