EAGALA is an acronym for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an organization founded in 1999 that is now located in 41 countries around the world and more than 2,000 certified members.
I am a certified EAGALA Equine Specialist and utilize the model as a foundation for my Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine-Assisted Learning programs here at the Ligonier Therapeutic Center. As defined by the requirements for EAGALA certification, I qualify as an equine specialist and I work with a team of mental health professionals and other equine specialists.
Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) are experiential approaches designed to help clients identify, face and work through life issues.
Clients dealing with mental health issues that are often treated in traditional counseling practices, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief, addiction and behavior modification, are excellent candidates for EAP.
EAL is similar to EAP, but the focus is more toward education and skill enhancement. EAL programs often focus on social skills and leadership development and is very useful when working with groups from schools, residential treatment facilities, or the corporate world.
EAP and EAL utilize a different approach than traditional therapeutic horsemanship programs in that the clients do not ride. In fact, the horses play a completely different role in the therapeutic process. The goal of EAP/EAL is for clients to interact with horses from the ground, observe the horses’ reactions to them and then identify ways these reactions could be metaphors representing something going on in the client’s life.
I am often asked the question:
How is it possible for horses to represent something in the client’s private life?
I answer this question by explaining the basic nature of horses. Horses are very intuitive creatures and possess an acute sense of awareness; awareness to everything that is going on in their environment. They are extremely sensitive to the actions of humans and have an uncanny ability to pick up on non-verbal human behavior. Horses are completely honest in the way they react to situations and they do not have the ability to lie or gauge their reactions to spare your feelings. They do not know your past or your future. They are nonjudgmental, they don't hold grudges. I can tell you from personal experience that if I am in a bad mood when I get to the barn, my horses let me know it immediately by becoming grumpy or difficult.
Horses are a fantastic instrument to use when getting a “read” on what is going on with a client, particularly clients who are unable or unwilling to verbally communicate their thoughts or feelings. People who have been through trauma generally do not want to talk about it. EAP allows them to "be with the horses".
In a nutshell, EAGALA describes the method as a “standard and structure for providing Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning sessions. Practicing within a model establishes a foundation of key values and beliefs, and provides a basis of good practice and professionalism. The EAGALA Model provides a framework of practice, but within that framework, there are infinite opportunities for creativity and adaptability to various therapeutic and facilitating styles.”
For more information, go to the EAGALA website: www.eagala.org.
Quickly, the most distinctive features of the EAGALA model are as follows:
• Team Approach – (1) Mental Health professional, (1) Equine Specialist, and one or more horses work together with clients in all EAGALA-based sessions.
• Ground Based - Focus on activities are on the ground – No horseback riding is involved. Instead, effective and deliberate techniques are utilized where the horses are metaphors in specific experiential activities.
• Solution-Oriented – The basis of the EAGALA Model is a belief that all clients have the best solutions for themselves when given the opportunity to discover them. Rather than instructing or directing solutions, we allow our clients to experiment, problem-solve, take risks, employ creativity, and find their own solutions that work best for them.
• Code of Ethics – EAGALA has high standards of practice and ethics and an ethics committee and protocol for upholding these standards, ensuring best practices and the highest level of care.
In EAGALA, the horse is an integral part of the team.
The EAGALA Team consists of:
• The Horse – Horses have many behavioral characteristics which lend them to being effective agents of change, including honesty, awareness, and ability to communicate nonverbally. The role of the horses in an EAGALA session is to 'be themselves'.
• The Mental Health Professional (MH) – The MH must be appropriately licensed and is responsible for treatment planning, documentation of clients, and ensuring ethical practice. The MH builds on the ES’s horse observations, bringing in the metaphoric and therapeutic/learning relevance of the session.
• The Equine Specialist (ES) – The ES chooses the horses to be used in sessions, works with the MH to structure sessions, keeps an equine log to document horse behaviors in sessions, stays aware of safety and welfare of clients, horses, and team, and makes observations of horse behavior, which can bring in potential metaphors.
I am the ES in sessions, but my life experiences as well as my 8 years of experience pairing horses with all types of clients allows me to unofficially assist the MH in treatment planning as well.
What happens in a session?
Throughout the session, the MH will ask the client to participate in a variety of activities that requires interaction with the horses. This is where the client drives the process. The activities may range from simply being in the horse’s presence to asking the horse to navigate an obstacle course. It really depends upon the client’s needs and goals.
After the session, we give the client the opportunity to verbally process what happened during the session. Some clients want to talk about it, others do not. Nonetheless, most of our clients report that they develop a new sense of self-awareness from working with the horses. And that is what we are looking for - learned skills or a new sense of self are transferable to other areas of life and can help a great deal when a client is struggling.