Integration of Counseling Theory in Equine-Assisted Counseling and Psychotherapy

In this chapter, I review some of the most common theoretical orientations integrated with equine-assisted counseling and psychotherapy (EACP) and their utility within the form of EACP that I developed and use in my practice for older children and adults called Relational Equine-Partnered Counseling (REPC). It is important to keep in mind that this chapter does not represent all the different theories that may be integrated with EACP or the REPC approach. The REPC approach is trans-theorctical and intended to be usable by therapists of diverse clinical orientations. A therapist’s clinical orientation will inform what aspects of the session are deemed most meaningful, how they choose to process with the client, and their overall conceptualization of the client’s presenting concerns and progress. The most important part in implementing the REPC model is maintaining the importance of the client-equine relationship.

Few researchers have attended to a theoretical basis for the practice of equine-assisted counseling and psychotherapy (EACP) (Bachi, 2012). Bachi (2013) highlighted the need for counselors to fill the gap between the theory and practice of EACP through integration with counseling theories to provide guidelines for practice. Chandler, Potrie-Bcthke, Barrio Minto, Fernando, & O’Callaghan (2010) highlighted strategies to implement specific animal-assisted therapy techniques with different theoretical orientations. Counseling theories most commonly integrated with equine-assisted counseling and psychotherapy include Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies, Gestalt, Person-Centered, and Behavioral (Gergley, 2012; Schlotc, 2009). This chapter is intended to provide a snapshot of each of the major theories often integrated into EACP. In truth, each theory; and its integration in EACP, could warrant a chapter of its own. By strengthening your foundation in your understanding and practice of your identified theory, it will be easier to integrate it with REPC as well as other EACP approaches.

Psychoanalytic Therapy

The primary focus of psychoanalytic therapy is to bring the client’s unconscious into conscious awareness. As people, we often avoid things that makeus feel threatened, uncomfortable, or vulnerable (Shcdlcr, 2006). People often experience internal conflict and unconsciously prevent themselves from reaching their goals. For example, a person may desire a close, intimate relationship with their partner, but take actions to keep the partner from coming too close. Other times, a client may disavow specific emotions such as anger. The hallmarks of psychoanalytic therapy are described by Shcdlcr (2010): a focus on the client’s affect and emotional expression; exploration of the client’s avoidances of upsetting thoughts and feelings; identification of the client’s recurring themes and patterns that cause distress; exploration of past experiences in understanding present distress; an emphasis on processing the client’s relationships with others, including with the therapist; and exploration of the client’s wishes and fantasies.

In EACP, the therapist can facilitate the client’s identification and expression of emotions occurring while interacting with the equine. Oftentimes, processing emotions related to the client’s experience with the equine can feel less threatening than to process emotions related to experiences outside of session. Clients who may otherwise avoid processing distressing emotions may be more engaged and more relaxed as a result of the equine’s presence in the session. The therapist can help the client identify parallels between the client’s feelings, thoughts, and behaviors while interacting with the equine and client’s experiences outside of session. These parallels may be indicative of self-defeating patterns. The therapist can help the client enlarge the meaning of these experiences to understand the influence and role of the client’s past experiences and how they may contribute to present distress. The therapist can also facilitate processing of the interspecies relationship occurring between the client and the equine. By processing the client’s feelings and thoughts while in relationship with the equine (i.e., transference), the therapist can help the client uncover unconscious patterns and create healthier ones in the present relationship with the equine. For a more detailed reviewed of the integration of depth-oriented, psychoanalytic EACP, see Filippides (2016).

An example of this transference is illustrated in my work with an adolescent named James who was brought to EACP to treat anxiety and oppositional defiant behaviors. He experienced excessive worrying and often teased and verbally lashed out at others. One day, he decided that he wanted to walk his horse, Dandy, on the lead line. James hooked the lead line to the halter and immediately walked off without attending to Dandy. As soon as the rope became taut, James immediately stopped. When the equine did not move to follow him, he became angry. He then proceeded to call Dandy “stupid” and “lazy”. As James had not cued Dandy using the rope, it was clear to the treatment team that Dandy did not know what the client wanted him to do. James stated that he should not have to apply pressure on the rope to direct Dandy and instead the horse should “just know” what he is supposed to do. Through continued processing, James later revealed a fear of Dandy becoming angry' if he were to assert himself. In later sessions, James related this fear to childhood experiences of being yelled at or hit when he would ask his father for something that he needed, such as a glass of water. He also reported that his father would often call him “lazy” and “stupid” during these exchanges. Over time, James began to practice communicating his wishes to Dandy. As feelings of fear arose during these sessions, James was able to identify and express these fears. By bringing his feelings to his conscious awareness, he was able to then evaluate them against Dandy’s calm response to him in the moment. Over time, James became comfortable in expressing his wishes to Dandy. He later began to do the same with his friends and foster parents.

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