“Pick the horse that you relate to and bring him over to me,” the instructor tells her uncertain group of volunteers.
About half a dozen mental health professionals and horse enthusiasts stand in the dirt arena at Crescent Moon Stables in Aberdeen, participating in Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association instructor Sholeh Lulham-New’s demonstration.
They eye the large animals, unsure of how to complete Lulham-New’s instruction.
That struggle to find the answer is the whole point of asking questions like that of people seeking horse therapy, whether they’re struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, autism or abuse.
“It’s not about teaching, it’s about getting them to come up with their own solutions,” Lulham-New explained. “There’s never any set answer in the end. It’s all about how they work through it.”
How people approach problems like that can tell counselors a lot about them; how they handle struggling or failure, whether they ask for help or use the tools available and whether they give up. Horse therapy provides an opportunity to take patients out of the office and approach their challenges in a new way. The horse provides a living, breathing external representation of what the person interacting with it may be feeling, a way to talk about it and let them see the problem outside themselves.
“The horses respond to you and your raw emotions, it helps find your own solution to things,” Lulham-New said.
She recalled one family dealing with domestic violence who tried the unconventional but increasingly popular therapy. The horses immediately picked up on the anxiety and tension the family was coping with.
“When they got in there the horses started running around crazy, looking for their safe spot. So we talked about, ‘Where is your safe spot? What does that look like?’ “
Combining two passions
Lulham-New has loved horses as long as she can remember, riding since age 12 and giving lessons in her spare time. She’s lived in Montesano about eight years and for a long time worked with Child Protective Services, helping foster children. It never occurred to her to combine her love for the big, gentle animals and helping people in need until she attended an EAGALA training in 1999.
“I went to the first training and I was instantly hooked,” Lulham-New recalled.
EAGALA’s style of counseling involves teaming up a horse expert and a mental health professional, both of them participating in the interactions between clients and the animals. There’s no riding in this program, just creative ways of interacting, like learning to guide horses around obstacles without bridles, completing tasks with family members and unpacking the experiences with the mental health professionals.
A study published in the Journal of Creativity in Mental Health showed the method was more effective than traditional, classroom-based talk therapy with a group of 164 at-risk youth, grades 3-8 in the Southwest.
The children participated in a 12-week equine assisted counseling program, focusing on “therapy activities, and complementary adventure-based therapy activities. These techniques were designed to enhance participant self-awareness, to enhance recognition of dysfunctional patterns of behavior, and to foster healthy relationships,” according to the study.
Kids would put halters on the horses, groom them, lead them over a small jump in teams where they couldn’t touch the horse and couldn’t talk to each other, and perform other non-riding activities, then debrief with a therapist and contextualize the experience
“One participant said, ‘This must be how my mom feels when she asks me to clean my room.’ A therapist replied, ‘So, what could you do differently with the horse? If the roles were reversed, what would work with you?’ This type of processing increased the impact and longevity of the lessons learned,” the authors noted.
At the end of the program, the children working with horses showed a statistically significant increase in positive behaviors and a similarly significant decrease in negative behaviors relative to the students receiving classroom-based counseling.
They showed positive indicators like higher self-esteem and lower aggression.
Why it works so well is hard to pin down scientifically, but there are some known characteristics of horses
“Therapy horses are well-suited to their role as pet practitioners because of their ability to read and respond to social behaviors, a necessary skill for survival in a herd with a competitive pecking order,” the study authors explained. “This translates into an ability to read and immediately respond to human verbal and nonverbal communications. In other words, the horse acts as a mirror for the human participant and the horse’s behavior in response to the participant confronts the participant’s behavior.”
And on the human side: “For abuse victims, having a 1,400-pound horse respond to your command in a non-threatening manner provides the ultimate sense of validation of power and control.”
Lulham-New is hoping to bring the therapy to Grays Harbor County by connecting with different treatment providers in the area. She’s working on getting her counselor’s certificate so she can serve as the mental health professional, teaming with local stable staff for horse experts.
When she started making calls to area stables, Crescent Moon was immediately on board.
“Awesome!” stable manager Betony Simpson recalled of her first reaction. “I didn’t know anything about it. … She came out and started showing us and I was just in awe.”
During Lulham-New’s demonstration, it takes time for the volunteers to venture toward the center of the ring, where three horses stand, placidly observing the newcomers.
Dorothy Flaherty and Wayne Baker, clinical social workers for the Quinault Indian Nation, approach together. They stroke the horses, tentatively at first.
Baker notes the horses appear to want to stay in their group, where they feel safe. Lulham-New doesn’t talk about equine behavior or ways to approach the problem — without missing a beat, she asks, “Is that where you feel supported, with family and friends around?” as though it were a session.
“The horses will change session to session, depending on who is in the arena,” she said.
The horse he first attempts to coax wanders away, but a second takes an interest in Baker. He goes with it. “I changed horses,” Baker notes.
“That’s another thing we look at,” Lulham-New replies. “Do you try something new if things aren’t working?”
Eventually, the pair decides to stick with what they know: They stand where they want the horse to be and patiently wait, much like they might with a child.
Even with the distractions of the other people trying their own techniques — calling them like a dog, staring into their eyes — two horses come by to see what the social workers up to.
It’s already sparked ideas for Flaherty.
“It’s something I’ve always been interested in, I didn’t know it existed around here,” she said. “Being around horses, especially people who’ve had some trauma in their lives, there’s a comfort in seeing something that big that can be that gentle.”
“I could see where the kids would really be excited,” Flaherty continued. “I would use it to help teach kids how to trust. And it’s fun.”
Pricing can vary, and Lulham-New said she can be flexible when needed because, “I love the work.”
Usually it’s about $60 for a session, and requires the involvement of a mental health professional.
People who aren’t currently working with a counselor, like parents of autistic children, can still call and possibly work something out, Lulham-New said. She’s available at 360-951-2458.