EMDR and the Integration of Equine Therapy

Written by guest blogger, Elizabeth Clark, LPC.


EMDR and the integration of Equine Therapy are being used at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch. This unique use of EMDR helps troubled kids move through old traumas and integrate their work through riding horses.

Rhythmic Riding Groups help the children learn self-regulation and provide patterned, repetitive, rhythmic activity in order to create and restore pathways in the brain. Each child works with one horse, and must build a relationship with that horse in order to be successful.

Elizabeth Clark, LPC has been trained in EMDR, and runs some of these groups. She is starting to see patterns between the horses and children that can bring insight into choosing EMDR targets for future sessions. She tracks the difficulties the child may be having with connecting with the horse. This can be monitored by seeing if the horse won’t allow the child to catch him, or threatens the child by trying to bite or kick the child. When this happens, the child can choose another horse to interact with. If the same issues arise, it can be an indication of underlying trauma that the horse is sensing nonverbally.

As seen in the documentary, “Buck”, horses rely heavily on instinct and nonverbal communication. They are attuned to subtle changes of heart rate and breathing. This allows them to stay safe in a herd. If a horse becomes aroused – its body language, heart rate, and breathing will shift to indicate threat. Other horses pick up on this and use the information to take precaution against predators. Because of their attunement and instincts, horses are very honest creatures. They react to their environment.

In the above example, the child was somehow indicating nonverbally that she was not feeling safe. Something was going on inside her that the horse sensed, but she was not verbally expressing it.  The horse was able to sense these reactions.

In the integration of this work, preparation is still important – helping the child with Safe Place and Containment skills. If the child returns and struggles, then the therapist can do relaxation exercises with BLS while the child is with the horse. Letting the child experience an empowered sense of self while strengthening with BLS (Bilateral Stimulation) can help the child feel stronger, and change interactions elsewhere.

Children can learn to set boundaries, keep themselves safe, find their voice, and learn to tell the truth. If the child still struggles to attach with his/her horse it can be important to look at early attachment wounding in their life.

An EMDR target for attachment may start with, “Imagine you are an infant and your mother is in the room with you looking at you,” and then set-up the target using the trauma protocol. But if this is too difficult for the child, go with the child’s earliest memory of interacting with one of the parents that brings up distressing thoughts and feelings. Making sure the past with the parents, and present with the horse are processed with EMDR. Then add future templates of interacting with the horse to begin the integration process.

The wonderful thing about this process is the child can then test the EMDR session by going back to interacting with the horse to see if he/she feels anything different. New targets can be assessed by what is happening over time with the relationship between the horse and child. Overtime, the child will feel more confident with the horse and their relationship will grow stronger. As the child learns how to bond with the horse, their relationships with humans will change and shift also.

The beauty of this work is that the horse can help provide an honest measure of the child’s progress. The response the horse has to a child cannot be manufactured.

UPDATE: Two films related to equine assisted therapies we’d recommend are “Buck” and “The Mustang.”

Equine assisted therapy programs, especially used in conjunction with EMDR therapy, have been found to be helpful in healing trauma, anxiety, and PTSD. Many of equine assisted therapy programs rely on public support to keep them going.

This is only a short list of the program we were familiar with. Please note this not necessarily an endorsement of these specific services, nor do they all provide EMDR therapy. Please reach out to them directly if you are interested in their program, or for more information on how to support these vital programs.

If you know of other equine assisted therapy programs, especially those that provide EMDR therapy, please feel free to list them in the discussion section below.