Eco-Human Theory and Practice
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Home \ Актуальное \ Lopukhova Olga and Gazizov Kayum. EQUINE-ASSISTED THERAPY AND LEARNING: THEORY, PRACTICE AND RELATION WITH ECOPSYCHOLOGY

Lopukhova Olga and Gazizov Kayum. EQUINE-ASSISTED THERAPY AND LEARNING: THEORY, PRACTICE AND RELATION WITH ECOPSYCHOLOGY

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Lopukhova Olga 

PhD, Associate Professor, Kazan Federal University, Institute of Psychology and Education (Kazan, Russian Federation)

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Gazizov Kayum Kasimivich

PhD, Riding Coach, International Equestrian Center (Kazan, Russian Federation)

 

Abstract

The article discusses the basic theory and practice of equine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted learning from the standpoint of ecopsychology, as well as expressive therapy. The horse serves as a representative of the natural world and an archetypal image. The inclusion of horses in therapeutic and learning processes enables therapists to achieve various harmonizing and socializing effects, improve people’s perception of the natural world and develop their eco-identity. The article describes different forms and models of equine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted learning. The role of playful interaction of the human being with the horse is emphasized as a form of inter-subjective and ecological contact. The general structure and examples of equine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted learning programs have been described.

Keywords: equine-assisted therapy, equine-assisted learning, ecopsychology, environmental awareness

 

Introduction
Psychological assistance, socialization and personal development involving horses have gained recognition. In the last two decades, new forms of therapeutic assistance and training, such as “hippovention” [12], equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) [13,18,21], equine-assisted counseling (EAC) and equine-assisted learning (EAL) [20] have been developing. Other models of equine-assisted psychosocial activities include equine-assisted coaching and corporate trainings [14]. All these models can also be attributed to ecotherapy [15], or animal-assisted therapy.

Different therapeutic and supportive practices involving horses can be divided into techniques based on horse riding training [22]; techniques based on interaction with the horse “on the ground” (without riding a horse) [17]; techniques for working with the image of a horse or based on observation of horses, but without direct contact with them, as well as combined techniques.
The organization of communication between the client and the horse creates the conditions for gaining new experience and awareness of important aspects of interaction such as a feeling of closeness and trust, maintaining distance and awareness of one's autonomy [11]. An important aspect of the work is the reflection of the experience of interacting with a horse and its correlation with personality relationships in real life.

The client’s interaction with the horse in the process of observing and caring for it, control of the horse, allows the facilitator to maintain various options for the client’s contact with the animal, contributing to the correction of dysfunctional behavioral, mental and emotional stereotypes and the development of new ways of responding. In order to increase the effectiveness of reflection in the process of equine-assisted therapy and learning involving horses, some projective techniques can be used [7].

In all forms of equine-assisted therapy and learning, the horse acts as a representative of the natural world. It cannot exist and be perceived outside the natural environment. Such perception can support a constructive dialogue with various other natural objects [11] and aid in the formation of eco-identity [5, 16, 16]. In these forms of therapy and learning, the horse is not only an element of the natural environment, but also a significant “other” subject, as well as a semantically significant metaphorical image, which can be filled with psychological and cultural meaning. The rich cultural connotations of the horse’s image can be taken into account in equine-assisted therapy and learning, especially when expressive therapeutic practice is involved [5, 15, 16].
The development of environmental awareness, the formation and support of environmental identity (eco-identity) and of a nature-friendly lifestyle through communication with the horse are due to interaction, empathy, and identification with the animal as a subject.

 

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Figure 1 A horse is happily involved in human activities

General structure of organization of equine-assisted therapeutic and learning programs

Equine-assisted therapeutic and learning programs include several stages during which the gradual establishment and development of contact with the horse is facilitated. Usually, at the first stage, participants obtain knowledge about the psychological nuances of communication with horses, and also their significance in a cultural and historical context. Observing the horse’s behavior and reactions become an important part of the early stage of programs. When observing horses (and horses are always watching people), a condition similar to that described by Gratowski in communication with dolphins arises: “Before starting communication, they observe. Something happens at this moment between us and - with us ... ” [2]

The next stage is actually contact with the horses, an attempt to build a relationship with them (Fig. 2). Obtaining emotional, sensory-kinesthetic, perceptual experience is supported by the organization of reflection through various activities, such as writing an essay, keeping a diary and discussions. A horse is a rather active and large animal that causes fear in most people that can be overcome by feeding the horse and by tactile contact.

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Figure 2 Establishing contact with the horse

Completion of the program implies the integration of new experience gained throughout the program.


Examples of implemented programs

Program for youth and adults, aimed at improving their psychological well-being [3, 6]

The basic principle in the development of a training to increase the psychological well-being of an individual when interacting with a horse is the development of trust. Students of the Institute of Psychology and Education of Kazan Federal University (KFU) took part in the program of their personality development based on their interaction with horses. The experimental group that attended the training included 30 students, and the control group included 60 students. The experimental group was divided into two subgroups of 15 people each. The total number of sessions was five, about two hours each. Assessment of the effects of training was carried out using such questionnaires as:
 

Subjectification of a natural object by S.D. Deryabo and V.A. Yasvin, Psychological Well-being by K. Riff, and the Scale of Confidence by M. Rosenberg. Participants also provided verbal feedback and were invited to write self-reports in order to better assess their psychological dynamics. Statistical analysis of the comparison of the data in the control and experimental groups before and after the training was performed using the t-test and correlation analysis.

At the first stage of the training, the participants received knowledge about the psychological aspects of communication with the horse, and instruction about possible options for building contact with it. The next stage of the program involved actual contact with the horse, an attempt to build a relationship with her through interaction during feeding and cleaning. The completion of the program implied a reflection on the experience gained, which was recorded through oral and written feedback.

During the program, the participants significantly increased all measured indicators of psychological well-being (positive relationships, autonomy, environmental management, personal growth, self-acceptance, etc.), which is consistent with the results obtained by other authors in similar programs [11]. The students’ level of trust, according to the Rosenberg scale, and the level of psychological well-being on most scales, according to the K. Riff questionnaire, significantly increased.

The participants emphasized such significant effects as a result of their involvement in the program as the removal of states of distress, the growth of self-confidence, increase in a sense of energy and the development of goal-setting in meaningful activities, a sense of autonomy and trust in oneself and others, and the attainment of inner peace. Moreover, about half of the students commented on the acquisition of a state of trust in tactile contact with the horse and removing the feeling of fear of it.

Thus, it was confirmed that interaction with the horse in group training work allows for self-acceptance, personal growth, self and environment management and contributes to the development of basic trust. It was also found that the subjectification of the horse was an important factor in the growth of psychological well-being of a person.

 

The program of correction of child-parent relations "Control and trust" [19]

In modern situations of child development, a frequent problem is the imbalance of control and trust in parent-child relationships. Distortion towards excessive parental control over the child has many causes and negative consequences. The reasons may be parents' anxiety, distorted attitudes in connection with their role as a parent, lack of confidence in themselves, etc. The excessive constant control, combined with a lack of trust, acts as a serious stressor for parents, violates harmonious relations with the child, and also negatively affects the relationships, interfering with the child’s independence, responsibility and self-confidence. The opposite pole of connivance and indifference as well as the so-called “inconsistent” style of interaction with the child are less common, but also observed among parents.

Harmonious interaction is based on a relationship of trust and respect, as well as an adequate distribution of mutual responsibility and freedom. Such positions contribute to healthy, long-term, developing relationships and the formation of a healthy personality of the child. To do this, parents need to be aware of their feelings and fears, to gain experience of authentic contact and trust in relations with the child.

The training program "Control and Confidence" was developed to support improvement in the relationships between parents and their children based on the interaction of parents with horses in specially organized conditions. The program involves conversations with parents, the use of projective and expressive techniques, and exercises based on parents’ interaction with horses (feeding, tactile and kinesthetic contact, riding a horse, etc.). The program is also an original and attractive form of leisure and social activity, with the family spending time outdoors together, getting positive emotions and relieving stress. Sessions are held in a group comprising one or more families (parents and children). The program includes session classes held 1-2 times a week. The duration of each session is 1.5 -2 hours (Fig. 3).
 

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Figure 3 Family activities involving a horse
 

As a result of assessing the effects of the program, based on a qualitative analysis of the feedback of participants (mainly parents), the correction of inharmonious parent-child relationships was confirmed. In the first sessions, it turned out that parents who are characterized by the "hyperprotection" style show the greatest anxiety and nervousness when completing tasks for interacting with horses. In contact with such parents, horses showed tension and disobedience. In this situation, the participants had to change the style of their interaction with the horse to a more trusting one. As a result, the horse gave immediate feedback. It was seen how, as a result of the person changing her style of interaction, the horse changed her behavior, which became more calm and friendly. Such changes made a great impression on the participants, forcing them to realize their main tendencies in their relations with children.

 

Feedback examples:
“... At first I was very afraid of horses and worried that they could do some harm to my daughter. The horse, it seemed to me, was moving unpredictably and could step on her feet, push or bite. But, watching the horse, I realized that nothing bad was happening. My daughter quietly cleaned the horse's legs, bangs and tail, so I calmed down a bit. I was a little uncomfortable that my daughter is bolder than me when dealing with a horse. After I tried to convey my calm state to the horse and relax it, stroking it, I completely stopped being afraid. Now I’m sure that this horse loves me when my daughter and I comb her tail or mane, she is very calm and will never attack us ... ” (35 years old mother of a ten-year-old daughter).


“... I remember very well the state when the horse finally allowed me to hug her head and stroke her forehead. At first I didn’t succeed: she took her head and left. It was useless to insist. When I changed my state, relaxed and stopped pestering her with a hug, she came up to me and let me caress her. This reminded me of the relationship with my daughter. I think it is connected with my attitude ... Maybe I am imposing my communication too much and should “loosen my grip a little”? (a 40 years old father of thirteen year old daughter).

The key exercises aimed at building confidence were “cleaning the horse”, “decorating the horse” and “feeding with the palm of your hand”, during which the participants received tactile experience in contact with the horse and felt the possibility of their influence on such a large and powerful animal.

 

Feedback example:

“... At first I was very afraid of the horse. I was afraid that she would bite me or hit me. Now this fear has completely passed. I really like to feed her by hand and feel how she carefully takes small pieces from my fingers. This cautious attitude of the horse towards me gives rise to reciprocal feelings in me. I really like to scratch her neck and see her pleasure. Now I am much more affectionate and caring for my children. Now we began to hug more often. The previous tension in relations with relatives has disappeared ... ” (30 year old mother of 8 and 11 year old sons).

Exercises, including the task of leading the horse along a certain trajectory, to stop and start again, to move forward or backward, are aimed at working with awareness of the tendencies of control and contact. Horses refused to perform movements with too intense and excessive control, and they could not be moved, even when a person used physical force. In addition, the horse would go its own way. In these cases, participants discussed the strength of control and its need, as well as the balance of control and trust.

If the participant adequately perceived his/her mistakes and corrected an attitude to the situation, he/she successfully completed the exercise with riding the horse. Some parents took several sessions to master this experience. The exercise in which the parents were sitting on the back of the horse, which the child led about, was performed in some sessions, and it allowed parents to feel confidence in their child, to overcome the anxiety and the habit of their constant control over their child.

 

Feedback examples:

“... I first felt how inclined I am to control. I could not weaken my control, although I already saw that it was useless to restrain and pull, while my son very easily coped with this task. He was just a little ahead of the horse, very calm and confident. I can learn from him ... ” (35 year old father of an eight year old son).

“... The most striking impression for me was that my daughter was leading a big horse, on whose back I was riding. At first I was a little tense, but then completely unusual feelings came over me. It is so impressive when your well-being is in the hands of your child, because usually in life it is the other way around. My daughter very confidently and thoroughly completed this task, and I realized that she is a very responsible and reliable person ... ” (42 year old mother of a ten year old daughter).


Assessments showed that the “Control and Confidence” program allows participants to gain new experience in warm and trusting relationships with horses and, thanks to their immediate reaction, to identify unconscious attitudes in relationships with others, fears and negative models of relationships. Thanks to participation in the program, parents get a unique experience of self-awareness, understanding of their feelings and relationships with other people through work with horses.

 

Associative metaphorical cards “The Image of a Horse”

Associative metaphorical cards “The Image of a Horse” were developed for a phenomenological study of relationships, organization of feedback and reflection on the experience gained in therapeutic and learning sessions [15]. In the process of testing the set of cards, it was found that this set can be used in a wider context of psychological counseling, because even in cases where the subjects expressed a negative attitude to horses, the associative-metaphorical context of working with horse images gave a positive psychological effect.
The set consists of 100 photographs, which represent horses in different states and relationships, as well as in interaction with the environment. Images of horses were chosen so as to evoke associations with different mental states, feelings and relationships.

The deck contains images that can be attributed to different categories. There are cards that emphasize individual parts of the horse (eyes, lips, tongue, mane, bend of the back) and focused on sensory-perceptual associations. There are cards where the horses are represented in movement or at rest. Such cards are intended for revealing mental states and experiences of respondents (confidence, loneliness, persecution, security, etc.). There are cards where the horse is an element of nature. Such cards are focused on the reflection of the value of the environment in respondents’ own emotional development. Cards depicting pairs or groups of horses in different interaction situations are metaphors for relationships. Cards representing interactions between horses and human beings or other animals (cats, lions etc.) allow the respondents’ identification with one of the figures and different types of relationships.

The use of this set of cards ensured the psychological safety of the counseling process. The identification of respondents with a horse in photography is based on subjectification of the horse as a natural object in which a person can comprehend his/her own psychological characteristics. Thanks to the powerful environmental, cultural, emotional, motivational, and aesthetic potentials, the deck allows the development of imaginative and associative thinking, as well as environmental awareness.

 

Conclusion

The techniques and programs of equine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted learning were implemented and demonstrated their rich potential to improve participants’ styles of interaction and well-being. The inclusion of a horse and its image in therapeutic and learning practice can be based on the principles and methodology of ecopsychology and ecotherapy and has significant prospects not only for solving therapeutic and developmental problems, but also for the formation of environmental awareness.

The given examples of therapeutic and training programs involving horses show that interaction with the horse supports the processes of self-acceptance, personal growth, self and environment management, helps to strengthen basic trust, develop communication skills, correct dysfunctional behaviors and emotional responses. Subjectification of a horse as a psychological mechanism associated with the ideas of ecopsychology is an important factor in the growth of psychological well-being of a person, the strengthening of a healthy self, and the development of eco-identity in the process of equine-assisted therapy and equine-assisted learning.

 

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Reference for citations

Lopukhova, O.G., Gazizov, K.K. (2020). Equine-assisted therapy and learning: theory, practice, and relation with ecopsychology. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 1(1). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)


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