Wooden fence pickets form a square surrounding a barrel. A brown-and-white paint horse moves along the perimeter, gently exploring the pickets with its muzzle. Before long, he’s nudging and gnawing at the wood. Soon, the horse has removed any barrier the barrel once had.
The horse’s non-verbal communication and reflective nature allow for self-discovery and awareness in the moment. By telling their story through the animals, those suffering from emotional distress can find solutions, free from bias and judgment.
When a horse representing recovery rests its head on the shoulder of a proud soldier, the message is: “It’s OK to heal. I’m safe and recovery is my friend.” Symbolism is important in equine-assisted psychotherapy, and everything is a potential metaphor.
“Metaphors heal, enrich and transform our lives,” says psychologist Annie Ricalde. “They capture the essential and natural experience.” Developed by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, the EAGALA model involves the free movement of horses and humans in a holistic, peaceful setting. Sessions are solution-focused and facilitated by a licensed mental health expert as well as a qualified equine specialist.
Recently, the PEACE Ranch in Traverse City, Mich., collaborated with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on a pilot program introducing veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder to the EAGALA model. The program resulted in a significant reduction of symptoms in most of the participants and a clinical reduction in half.
Because of the treatment’s effectiveness, the VA is referring more veterans to facilities offering EAGALA sessions, many free of charge. The calming interaction with the horse affects other areas of their lives, making the veterans self-aware, present and hopeful for the future.