Our Approach to Equine Therapy

Hi there, I’m Marie.

Olivia and I are the Directors of the Women & Girls Programs here at Hoofbeats Sanctuary. We are qualified Equine Program Facilitators with certification from the Equine Psychotherapy Institute (EPI) and both hold a a Diploma in Equine Psychology. Based in Victoria, the EPI offers one of the most comprehensive training pathways in the field of Equine Assisted Therapy & Learning in Australia.

Equine Therapy incorporates horses into the therapeutic process. A traditional therapy session usually happens in a clinical environment – a closed room, facing a psychologist/counsellor/psychiatrist – where you talk your way through personal growth and healing. In our equine therapy sessions, the environment is nature-based, in the paddocks with the horses, where you experience personal growth and healing.  

I can tell you how to be more aware – but if I take you into the paddock and you actually experience a concept like awareness with me and the horses, then you can transfer that skill into every area of your life, without me or the herd being present.

Once you’re present in your experience, we start to unravel the belief system you have created for yourself – often since childhood – to enable you to adapt and survive in society. We look at the patterns that serve you and the ones that no longer do. 

The horses are both our assistants and our teachers in this process. The physical nature of equine therapy allows us to address parts of psychotherapy that are unavailable in room-based work. The invitation is to meet the herd, learn how they experience the world, and through this awareness and connection, see what we can learn from each other.

As practitioners, Olivia and I meet every client where they’re at in their healing process. A program can look very different from one person to the next. But as an example, here are the experiences of two of our clients (names have been changed to protect client privacy). 

Daisy, a woman in her 40’s, came to me desperate for something to change in her life. She had spent most of her adult life struggling from day to day with severe PTSD and anxiety from a domestic violence situation. After fifteen years of conventional therapy and medication, she discovered equine therapy at Hoofbeats. From our first Meet & Greet appointment, she set a few goals which included better managing her PTSD symptoms. She was having daily conflicts with her teenage son and desperately wanted to learn how to better manage that relationship. She felt incredibly tired from constantly fighting just to get him through the normal tasks of the day. 

The first two sessions typically reveal where you’re at in terms of self-regulation and awareness, and how well you notice what’s going on for yourself and for those around you. It is also where we get a feel for each other. With most programs incorporating just 12 private sessions, we need to develop a trust-based bond with each other as early as we can. Without trust, the work can’t be done. That’s why, if by session five, I notice that trust is still absent, I usually direct my clients towards other options. 

It took three sessions for Daisy to trust me and the work we were doing together. 

When we were addressing the theme of relationships, I invited Daisy to do an obstacle course activity with two of the horses: 

  • With Kazu (8yo Arabian gelding)she learnt what it felt like to be in a safe relationship where each party is respected and listened to. This was a revelation for her as she’d never experienced that type of relationship before. The feeling was completely new. But now, she had the matrix to repeat it in her own life – she knew what to look for and learnt to recognise what felt safe and what didn’t. 
  • With Phoenix (2yo Stockhorse gelding) she discovered what was required of her for him to feel safe. Just like her son, Phoenix was experimenting with boundaries – his and other people’s. Phoenix was also having trouble understanding what Daisy wanted from him, and as a result, he was pulling on his lead, ignoring her directions, dragging her where he wanted to go, and generally just taking charge of his own needs. Daisy had to take a different approach and had to recognise and then take ownership of her responsibility in their situation. She demonstrated confidence by clearly stating her boundaries to herself and then to Phoenix – using body language and intention – and then set some consequences for undesired behaviour (the withdrawal of treats). With this approach in mind, Daisy was able to then confidently lead a very content Phoenix through the obstacles and rewarded him at the end.

In the next session she recounted an incredible interaction that she had with her son where she got him to go for a long walk with her applying the very same skills she discovered with the horses. They both had a really wonderful time that day – she felt deeply connected to her son and her confidence in her parenting skills grew immensely.

There are so many life-changing things that Daisy discovered about herself in the paddocks during her program and this was just one small example. 

Daisy didn’t respond well to a few activities on self-regulation – which is consistent with her past experiences and her PTSD – until I asked her to help Cappy (19yo Thoroughbred mare) to self-regulate while I changed some bandages on her injured hooves. I completely trusted that Daisy to be gentle with Cappy while also keeping herself safe. Cappy greatly relies on the humans around her to give her information about her safety. Horses, as prey animals, are sensitive to both the heart rates and cortisol levels in both the humans and horses around them. That ability helps them to detect danger and to tell who is calm (and can therefore be trusted to keep them safe) and who is not calm. Because Daisy had to use all of the the tools we had previously learned together to self-regulate in order for Cappy to feel safe, she finally experienced a true Calm State herself. In short, the Calm State is a neutral state of mind where one is grounded and deeply aware of self, environment and others. This process taught Daisy how to reach and to use that state more often and more easily in everyday life. 

Lou, 13yo girl living with ASD, was also living with severe anxiety and depression. She came to do a program with me after her situation had escalated and she had attempted to take her own life. 

Lou discovered self-confidence while learning to connect with Mack (12yo Thoroughbred gelding) – discovering his likes and dislikes, learning to do some positive reinforcement training with him and caring for him. On the day that Mack felt safe enough in her presence to fall asleep on her arm, she experienced such a deep feeling of connection and peace. A feeling that in her own words, was extremely rare as her mind was always active with thoughts and worry. 

At first, Lou didn’t see much value in herself, had no self-worth, and never believed any compliments anyone gave her. But Mack, by simply being his beautiful self, showed her he genuinely cared for her, was curious about her and trusted her enough to fall asleep next to her. Horses don’t lie. Mack’s authentic behaviour was worth infinitely more to Lou than any “Well done! You should be proud” given by a human. 

During her program, Lou learned many new supports to implement in her daily life and new tools to allow herself to self-regulate. But, most importantly, she became aware of her boundaries and realised that she had previously been incapable of saying “no” to defend those important boundaries. The first time she actually said “No, I don’t want to” to me, we celebrated this with some extra time spent with Mack. 

Lou, at 13, still has much to learn but she left the program with so many new tools to do life more confidently and with her personal blueprint for healthy habits. Her mother wrote to me at the end of the program saying that this time with the horses had made an enormous difference in her life. 

Olivia and I understand how deep this process can go as we have both been through our own healing journeys. Olivia previously struggled with PTSD, anxiety and depression from her time in the Navy and I had struggled with self-harm and an eating disorder since my teens. We both found healing at the sanctuary and are now passionate about facilitating that healing process for other people. 

Most of our therapy horses and ponies have also experienced trauma, neglect or abuse – finally finding their forever sanctuary at Hoofbeats. This shared lived-experience between horses, practitioners and clients allows all of us to feel truly safe and truly understood – the precursors to healing that are usually absent in more traditional forms of therapy. 

When I started as a volunteer at the sanctuary a few years back, Lucy, one of the mini ponies, was so afraid of humans, that she never interacted with any of us. Two years later, she comes to say hello to every newcomer. That’s because she’s experienced love and safety and had positive interactions with every program participant and volunteer at the sanctuary. 

Safety requires that we never ignore her when she says “no”. She feels safe because she knows we won’t push past any boundary she sets. In the same way, that we respect our horses’ boundaries, we also respect those of our clients – always listening to and respecting their “no”.  

Our Go Remarkable Program is a program for 10 to 24yo clients and is focused on establishing goals specifically for girls and young women who may struggle with self-confidence, anxiety, and depression. I welcome you in a safe environment, where you can just be you – and where you can say things without fear of judgement from me or the horses. We discover the basis of healthy relationships. The only rule is: no harm to self or others. 

Our Recovery & Discovery Program is a program for women of all ages, in which we establish your goals during our Meet & Greet appointment and work together to discover how you do life, how learnt behaviours are impacting your life now, and in which we support you through your healing journey toward reaching those goals. 

These programs are for anyone who feels like they need support with:

  • Emotional awareness
  • Social skills 
  • Confidence 
  • Trust
  • Empathy
  • Impulse control
  • Developing or maintaining relationships
  • Problem-solving
  • General mental health improvement
  • Working through trauma that might have left you with PTSD, anxiety, depression, ADHD, eating disorders, self-harm, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms

We don’t USE horses, we WORK with or alongside them
They are our assistants in the healing process. We don’t do anything without their consent, they have every right to say yes or to say no to a particular activity. We don’t force an activity upon them if they say no. Our clients learn a lot about horse body language and behaviours – and learn how to interpret/recognise a yes or a no indicator from them. 

This is not a place you’ll learn how to ride horses
All our activities are based on the ground. Many activities are “at liberty” in the paddock – meaning that there can be some observations without any horse handling at all. 

We usually have a waiting list
Once you apply for a program place, someone from our team will contact you to chat about your needs and to see where and when we may be able to fit your into the schedule. If you are in an immediate crisis and we cannot find a day and time that works for you immediately, you might be referred to other professionals to look at setting up psychological support in the interim.

Try to identify your learning goals beforehand
Our programs run for 12 sessions. To maximise your experience, having an idea of what you’d like to achieve in your program is helpful – but please don’t worry if you’re not sure – we can help you to figure that out in the first few sessions.

Make sure the timing is right for you
You need to be able to commit to this program for a minimum of 13 consecutive weeks for at least an hour at every appointment. If your schedule does not allow you to comfortably dedicate that time every week, please don’t apply. As facilitators we commit to turning up for you every week. There’s nothing more frustrating to us than when we are more committed to a client’s well-being than they are.  

Financial disadvantage is never be a barrier to accessing programs
Our session fees are usually subsidised by grant funding from our generous funding partners. If you are unable to cover the whole cost of your sessions, just let us know in your application form and we can offer you a scholarship to cover the balance.

Horses can offer an extraordinary amount of emotional support. We hope this article helped you understand how Equine Therapy at Hoofbeats Sanctuary can help you.