A new way of working with horses goes beyond riding them
by Nanette Maxim November 5, 2010
In these challenging times, many of us are looking for ways to feel better about our lives. We’re searching for “something” to help show us the way.
For South Salem psychotherapist and NYU professor James Cassese, that something may be work with horses. His Equine Energetix practice - including workshops and individual coaching sessions in Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) - has taken animal -assisted therapy to a new level.
In the heart of Westchester and Dutchess horse country, Cassese’s practice, based at Mistover Farm, in Pawling, utilizes the strong bond between humans and horses, and the animal’s inherent abilities. “As a prey animal, the horse’s survival is dependent upon its ability to reflexively notice and respond to its environment,” says Cassese, himself an equestrian. “This finely tuned ability, which includes a field of vision of nearly 360 degrees, allows horses to reflect what we humans put out more accurately than any mirror.”
Animal-assisted therapy has been around for some time, of course, but has for the most part focused on therapeutic riding programs, like those of Pegasus Therapeutic Riding, or on palliative care - for example, allowing nursing-home residents to interact with dogs and cats. EFL (Equine-facilitated learning) employs exercises that foster and utilize the horse-human bond, Cassese says, “in a space where change can happen”.
Many EFL activities are unmounted - no previous riding experience is required - and center on exercises such as those involving working with physical boundaries between human and horse. In a round pen, the person is directed to establish a comfortable boundary with the horse and use their body and voice to maintain it. In the discussion that follows, the coach and client delve more deeply into what played out in the round pen and how that might also manifest in the person’s everyday life.
In workshops such as the upcoming “Seeing with the Heart”, a leading exercise may be employed that demonstrates how one’s focus affects those around us. The person is taken through a visualization that brings their awareness to, for example, their head or their heart. they are then instructed to lead a horse while maintaining their focus on one of these areas. With their incredible ability to mirror humans, the horse’s response to the human’s focus is immediately apparent and can offer instant feedback that we can apply to our daily life.
Clients come to Equine Energetix for a host of reasons, from building better relationships to overcoming grief to discovering a more satisfying career. Equestrians take part in EFL exercises to overcome blocks in their riding practice - Olympic equestrian medalist Anky van Grunsven says it helped her change her focus from winning to truly enjoying her sport.
“I’ve used this to help riders resolve and conquer their fears with a speed and ease that wouldn’t be possible in a traditional psychotherapeutic treatment”, says Cassese.
For one young married couple who was at a crossroads in their relationship, the EFL exercises helped them concentrate their conversations with one another more on important issues they faced instead of the minor things that were constantly distracting them. In the round pen, with a dappled horse named Vince, a member of the nine horse Equine Energetix herd, the couple noticed that when they were discussing relevant topics, the horse stayed close, and yet when they veered into arguing about small details, the horse walked away from them. “Now it’s our ongoing joke with each other when we’re at home and we realize we’re drifting away from what’s important,” says the husband, “One of us turns to the other and says, “Hold on - the horse walked away.”
Equine-facilitated learning (EFL) differs from equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP), which Cassese also practices, in that, he says, “change occurs through personal growth and learning, rather than through the development of psychological insight that is the foundation of EFP. As a professor and psychotherapist, I have been able to adapt solid psychological concepts to the EFL model.”
Equine Energetix offers educational seminars, energetic psychology, and life coaching, as well as workshops focused on exploring creativity or developing one’s intuitive ability. “As a psychotherapist trained to reflect and observe,” says Cassese, “I have been awed by the equine’s innate talent. It’s so exciting to watch as they help people grow and change.”
For more information on Equine Energetix and their upcoming workshops, visit www.equineenergetix.com.