Equine Therapy

Treatment at Timberline Knolls offers two types of groups: core and elective. Core groups are required for residents, while elective groups, such as equine, are optional. Equine therapy is offered monthly on campus April through November to residents who choose to participate.

What Is Equine Therapy?

Horses have played an integral role in the human experience for many years. History records the therapeutic benefits of horses were recognized as early as 1875 in Europe. At the conclusion of World War I, horses were used to help returning soldiers at Oxford Hospital and the year 1969 marked the advent of horses helping the physically disabled in North America.

Therapy involving horses is generally referred to as equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) or equine assisted learning. EAP utilizes horses in an experiential fashion to help people achieve emotional growth and learning. At Timberline Knolls, it is a collaborative effort between a licensed clinical therapist and an equine professional working with residents.

Equine Therapy

The focus of EAP is not riding or horsemanship; in fact, residents at Timberline Knolls never mount the horses. Instead, all activity is ground-based. A commonly used expression in the Timberline Knolls equine program is, “you can’t look in a mirror sitting on a horse.” This concept refers to the interaction between the resident and the horse. The horse will reflect what the woman or girl needs to see and ultimately learn from the experience.

The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), founded in 1999, is the leading international non-profit association for professionals using equine therapy. Currently, there are more than 6,000 EAGALA programs, staffed with professionals trained and certified by EAGALA throughout the world.

Equine Therapy at Timberline Knolls

At Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, we use the EAGALA model with our residents. All sessions are conducted by a licensed mental health professional, who is trained and certified by EAGALA, and an equine trainer. The format is not decided in advance; instead, it is more a result of what the group is experiencing and what seems important to address at the time. The agenda naturally unfolds, always with a great deal of verbal interaction between residents and our therapist.

Initially, the horses may prove daunting to the women and girls. After all, these are enormous animals, often weighing upwards of two tons. However, their size alone provides many opportunities for discussion involving emotions such as fear and anxiety. Women, who have suffered physical or sexual abuse from a person significantly larger than them, may re-experience feelings of helplessness and dread. Even those with eating disorders are frequently put off by their massive size, perceiving that they are overweight and perhaps overfed. In order to remain in the pen, even consider approaching and touching the horse, many residents must practice the new coping skills they have learned while at Timberline Knolls.

All activities are constructed to serve as life metaphors, and thus are intended to be learning and growing experiences. Often they entail difficulty or challenge, which requires a solution. The group facilitators do not offer help, knowing that our residents can and will find the solution.

An activity may be as simple as designing a maze for a woman to lead a horse through, or creating an obstacle that must be encountered and overcome. The horse may or may not be compliant; this means residents may need to work on patience and distress tolerance.

Since verbal communication has little value during this therapeutic exercise, participants must consider new ways of conveying what they want this creature to do. As the activity progresses, it is not unusual for a resident to project onto the horse problems she has been addressing with her primary therapist at Timberline Knolls. A girl may comment that the horse treats her just like her parents, boyfriend, or friend. This provides an immediate opportunity for our therapist to pause in the activity and process these thoughts and feelings on the spot.

Why Use Equine Therapy

There are natural limits to how much can be learned, explored and understood through talk therapy. Expressive therapy, such as equine, offers unique opportunities for growth because it utilizes as close to a “real-life” situation as possible in a treatment setting. The horse is a live, tangible being. What’s more, horses are honest creatures; they have no pretense or artifice. They are the quintessential embodiment of “what you see is what you get.” They treat all people the same; they do not care about addictions or disorders, a resident’s flaws or the shape of her body.

A horse may just stand and “be,” providing an excellent example of what it is to live in the moment. This mindfulness is a tool found in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which residents learn and practice during treatment at Timberline Knolls. Conversely, in a moment of sheer insouciance, a horse may take a quick gallop around the pen, kicking up its heels. This is an example of simple carefree joy, which is rarely lost on the participants. Our therapist capitalizes on this moment, possibly by asking questions such as, “Can you remember a time in your life when you felt like that?” and “Do you think your future holds such spontaneous delight?”

In a horse’s mind, there is no past or future – there is today; they have a great deal to teach hurting and hopeless women and girls about life and how to live it.

Types of Disorders Treated with Equine Therapy

Equine therapy is an important tool in treating all disorders or addictions:

Eating Disorders

More than any other of the groups we treat at Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, those with eating disorders are impacted by the enormity of the horses. Our equine therapist encourages residents to focus on how content and free the horse appears, even with its large size. The horse is, yet again, the perfect example of one who is “comfortable in its own skin.” Additionally, women and girls with a profoundly negative body image quickly realize that the horse cares not at all what they look like. Unlike people, the horse is absolutely non-judgmental.

Trauma/Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Equine offers an incredible learning opportunity to those suffering from trauma or PTSD. As mentioned, the animal’s size and occasional unpredictability can be very triggering for those who have experienced trauma. This is a valuable opportunity for our facilitating therapist to intervene in the moment to help a woman work through painful feelings or reactions associated with her past traumas.

Mood Disorders

Women and girls with mood disorders often approach our equine experiential differently than others. Those with depression may simply watch the horses as they frolic around the pen and experience a little of that happiness vicariously. For that moment in time, these women are not focused on their problems; instead, they are enjoying the opportunity to observe these beautiful horses. Residents with anxiety are often relaxed and comforted by stroking or grooming the horse. The warmth of the animal, the smell of the horse, the repetitive action of combing through its mane, all have a calming effect on women and girls who feel anxious.

Substance Abuse

Residents who come to Timberline Knolls due to substance addiction have their own set of challenges. What we see most with this group is the pleasant realization that interacting and playing with these animals is something they can do while sober. This is a healthful, wholesome activity that can provide a little bit of the good feeling that was once found exclusively and destructively in drugs or alcohol.

Benefits of Equine Therapy

The obvious benefit of this type of therapy is the insight gained by each resident and the opportunity to build upon skills learned in treatment. Even if a resident chooses to remain on the sidelines and merely observe, this too has value. She is outside in the fresh air, surrounded by the beauty of nature, watching these fine strong animals as they play, graze, or just exist, witnessing her fellow residents engage in an activity, often laughing and having fun.

Although the short-term impact has value, many residents discover the far-reaching results of the time spent in our round pen. As they walk through the challenging days of recovery, long after they leave Timberline Knolls, they recall the strides they made with that horse. They think, “If I was able to get a 1,500 pound horse through that obstacle course, I know I can do this, too.”

Common Questions

Q. Why can’t I ride the horses?

A. We want the interaction between the horse and resident to be as pure as possible. We want the horse to be honest and true to its nature — to act like a horse. If a person is on a horse’s back, it will react as the person wants; this means the rider cannot learn from the horse, which is the goal of this type of therapy.

Q. How can I be certain I will be safe in the pen?

A. Two reasons: first, the facilitators are well trained and have been involved with dozens, if not hundreds, of these types of groups. Second, the horses are carefully selected according to their personalities, behaviors and gentle dispositions. These are non-aggressive, friendly animals.

To learn more about equine therapy and treatment at Timberline Knolls, call one our our licensed counselors for a free, confidential consultation.

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