The Art and Science of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy

Marilyn Sokolof

Marilyn Sokolof, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, PATH Inti Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning, and a PATH therapeutic riding instructor. She is Developer/Director of Unbridled Therapy, a training program for professionals interested in equine facilitated psychotherapy (EFP); Clinical Director of HorseMpower, Inc., and faculty/evaluator for the PATH ESMHL Workshop/Skills Test. She recently retired as Director of Equine Psychotherapy at a residential addictions treatment center.

As a practicing psychologist for 40+ years, the “is-it-art or is-it-science” issue has remained a dogged question. The obvious answer is the field requires both approaches: the science that expands our understanding of, and confidence in, what we do, and the art that allows for the spontaneity and creativity that is part of our daily practice. Add in horses, and the art/ science issue becomes even more important in determining what the best practices are for a relatively young industry and profession. As a practitioner of EFP for 20+ years, I offer my story in hopes that it can provide some insight for the field.

The science part of my story was primary as a graduate student. While hindsight has shown me the importance of biology, research, and mathematics, at the time it felt mostly irrelevant. I wanted to HELP people. For the ensuing years, the art of providing psychotherapy was a rich experience, and yes I did HELP people. And, as the years marched on, the wide-ranging scientific discoveries did in fact help clarify best practices and assist me in the office.

Horses have been a magnificent part of my life from childhood. I love the sensual aspects—the way they smell, their physical presence—and am amused (and sometimes frustrated!) by their personalities. The experience of riding brings me true joy. The barn is a place for healthy physical challenge, emotional comfort, and true mindfulness. It has served as a great antidote for the many hours in the office spent witnessing so much pain.

It finally dawned on me that what horses do for me could be offered to my clients. Thirty years ago, setting up an EFP practice was more art than

Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy 175 science. There were few resources. I was fortunate enough to find a small group of people (through North American Riding for the Handicapped Association |NARHA|, now Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship [PATH Inti]) but there was little science to aid in either best clinical or business practice. For those of you wanting to enter into in this field, the body of knowledge is growing exponentially, and I encourage you to examine it for opportunities and assistance. Modern technology affords you the ability to search for them easily.

In addition to providing EFP as a private practice and as Clinical Director of HorseMpower, Inc. (an EFP program in Gainesville, Fla.), I also developed and directed an EFP program at a residential treatment center for clients struggling with addiction and co-occurring disorders. Throughout my career, I have been privileged to be present for the exquisite interactions between horses and clients that allows for so much healing and self-discover}'.

Retired now from direct service, I have focused my experience and knowledge into teaching others. I developed a training/consultation program “Unbridled Therapy” for both mental health as well as equine professionals. I am faculty for the PATH Inti workshop providing certification as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning. I am also a proud member of the Executive Committee for the organization Federation for Horses in Education and Therapy International (HETI), discovering people from all over the world who are engaged in equine-assisted interventions.

My advice for those of you interested in providing EFP:

  • • Be prepared for important revelations, emotional intensity, and rapid transformations—that is the power of this work. The moments in the barn are complex. Be prepared cognitively, but also emotionally. Work with populations with which you are already experienced. Allow for the “art” of witnessing those moments between client and horse. Be supportive, but do not interfere. Provide structure, but be flexible.
  • • Of primary importance is consideration of your equine partner. Know both the art and science of good horse care, physical and emotional. Give your horse a voice, and listen carefully to it, for everyone’s sake (client, horse, and yourself). Do not disrespect your equine partner (or any animal) by defining them as “bombproof”, “would never hurt you”, etc.—denying their “animalness” denies them the right to have their basic instincts and behavior that comes from those instincts. Allow them to inform you and your clients.
  • • Be scrupulous about complying with safety standards, both physical and emotional.
  • • Be clear if this is a profession from which you expect to make income; learn about best business practices, follow guidelines, know your professional requirements, and don’t skimp on them.
  • • Be a member of equine-assisted intervention professional organizations. Not only will you have access to the ever-growing body of resources
  • (programming, business, research, etc.), you will find support from likeminded individuals. Being on working committees for my entire EFP career has been educational and rewarding in many ways. And, I’m happy to give back to an industry that has done so much for me.
  • • Learn by attending workshops, reading material, and conversing with others—both “experts” as well as “newbies”, the latter a hotbed of thinking outside the box.
  • • The science is important; read/study/search out as much information as you can. Your personal competencies are not only an ethical demand in working with clients; they will provide a foundation for those complex moments in the barn.
  • • Attend to your own mental health.

Mostly, I want to encourage. Follow your interest and passion; trust your instincts; seek doors that are open; believe in this process and all it has to offer.

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