Equine-Assisted EMDR

A cutting edge treatment approach that brings horses into the healing process

By Amber Stevenson

EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) Therapy is an evidence-basedmodality that has become a“treatment of choice” for trauma survivors. The basic premise of EMDR therapy is that when an individual experiences trauma or disturbing life events, the thoughts, emotions, sensations, and beliefs at the time of the trauma get “locked” in the nervous system and remain unprocessed. For the individual, it can feel like they are being "hijacked" by their body, as if the events are still happening (flashbacks, nightmares, hyper vigilance, anger, anxiety, etc.). This modality helps the individual process and release the past, enabling them to live fully present, in the moment. To learn about all 8 phases of EMDR therapy, see https://emdria.site-ym.com/?120.

A clinician in Arizona, Sarah Jenkins, combined her love of horses with her expertise in EMDR to create the EquiLateral protocol. Through her training and experience, she knew that horses possess natural abilities and instincts that make them unique partners in the therapeutic process. Bringing the horse into the session provides space for the client to build trust in a way that is often difficult to do with other humans, especially when a human has been the source of harm. For many clients, staying present and grounded in the moment can be a challenge in traditional office settings. The sheer size and presence of a horse, combined with being outdoors in nature, provides tangible opportunities for the client to stay time-oriented in the present.

With equine assisted EMDR, the therapist can facilitate in the moment, hands-on experiences with the client and horse to help the client learn about themselves and their coping patterns. Horses give the client immediate “feedback” through their natural reactions and responses. Experiencing how the horse responds to them helps the client learn to “tune in” to their own body and emotions in the moment. The horse’s natural instincts as a prey animal cause them to be hyper aware of us humans (historically, the horse’s natural predator). They are constantly assessing for danger and respond accordingly. This natural wiring of the horse is extremely beneficial in helping a client gain self-awareness.

A trademark of PTSD is that the body doesn’t know the danger is over. Whereas a horse can get startled by a perceived danger (like a “dangerous” plastic bag floating past them in the pasture), they are able to assess the danger and pretty quickly go back to grazing once they realize the bag isn’t going to hurt them. Conversely, when a trigger happens to humans (something that feels similar to the original trauma), the survival/ emotional part of our brain (the limbic system) doesn’t know the danger is over. That’s why a veteran might hit the ground and “take cover” when they hear fireworks around the 4th of July. They logically know that the original danger (war) is over and that they are safe now, but in hearing those fireworks (which can sound like a gunshot), the brain in that moment goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode. It’s not a conscious decision — it just happens. In an equine-assisted EMDR session, the horse provides plenty of opportunities to keep the client in the “here- and-now,” which is critical in order to process and heal from a traumatic memory. If a client is in re-living the trauma, it is neurobiologically impossible to reprocess a distressing memory.

Throughout the various phases of EMDR, the therapist can utilize equine-based activities to support the phase of treatment they are in.  From the beginning of treatment, the therapist is assessing the client’s “window of tolerance” (are they able to go into some of their story without shutting down or going into re-living). In Phase 2 of EMDR (the Preparation phase), the goal is to ensure that the client has sufficient skills and resources on board before moving into processing a trauma memory. For this phase, the therapist could be in the round pen with the client and a horse and choose activities that assist the client in learning and practicing grounding skills. Examples could be inviting the client to groom the horse or having the client hold the lead rope and walk the horse around the round pen while taking deep breaths. These activities help the client learn to regulate their emotions and tolerate calm. For many individuals, calm equaled danger in their stories. Because of this, it is critical thatthe client learn how to build a tolerance for calm without “shutting down” or going into re-living. Each equine assisted activity is chosen with the specific phase of EMDR in mind and the goal of that phase.

People are typically most curious about how the “eye movements” or bilateral stimulation of EMDR isdone (Phase 4) when incorporating a horse. This can be done either mounted or unmounted. The therapist can utilize the traditional method of eye movements while processing the image, cognitions, emotions, and body sensations of a specific target memory with the client (while being in the round penwith the horse). The horse can be right next to the client or milling around, just being a horse. Sometimes having the client keep a hand on the horse while reprocessing helps the client stay present and not go into re-living. If the therapist observes the client over-accessing the memory and not staying present, the therapist may ask the client to notice the texture of the horse’s mane, listen to the horse chewing grass, etc. – basic, simple sensory experiences to help the client stay oriented to the present. The horse provides the client with a “dual attention stimulus”— helping them metaphorically keep one foot in the past and one foot in the present while processing the trauma.

Incorporating the horse into the EMDR therapy process supports clients in moving out of a “left- brain approach” intrauma therapy (just talking about it) to a more experiential one that facilitates the actual processing and integration of the experience(s).

About the Author: Amber Stevenson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a Licensed Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor. She is certified in both EMDR and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and provides therapy to adolescents (14+) and adults. Information about Equine Assisted EMDR and Stevenson’s counseling services in Franklin, TN can be found at www.resiliencyranchcounseling.com.
Jenkins, S., & Baker, J. (2011). The equine-assisted EMDR manual: A guide to the integration of eye movement desensitization reprocessing and equine-assisted therapy. Tempe, AZ: Dragonfly International Therapy. https://emdria.omeka.net/items/show/21058

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