A Year in Equine Relationship Therapy at Shepherds Hill Academy
Equine Relationship Therapy (ERT) is an important therapeutic component of the year-long program at Shepherds Hill Academy. Students work one-on-one with a horse of their choosing, achieving relationship and horsemanship goals throughout the course of their year. Each horse is as unique as the student who chooses it, allowing the student to gain important life skills and lessons from the experience.
The Equine Relationship Therapy Model
The ERT program at SHA is lead by our Equine Program Director and Therapist. She and our Horse Professional have developed our exclusive equine relationship therapy program that includes a student reflection notebook called Stable Eyes.
The ERT model features 4 Levels of Progress in which students work to achieve and master during their time at Shepherds Hill Academy. Each level requires students to develop both relationship skills and horsemanship skills.
Level 1: Acquaintance
Developing a relationship with a horse is like building a relationship with another person. Once introduced, a student is in the acquaintance stage of the program.
During the acquaintance stage the student will begin to:
- Introduce themselves to the horse
- Learn more about the horse they have chosen
- Distinguish their horse from others
- Develop a deeper understanding of their horse’s temperament and character
Horses are incredibly perceptive, challenging students to truly invest in their relationship.
Students will start this stage by learning to catch and halter their horse. To halter their horse, the student must establish trust with that horse. Otherwise, the horse may resist or move away from the student. This process continues to build strong interpersonal relationship skills. Students will also feel a strong sense of accomplishment when they have completed this first skill, promoting a positive sense of awareness and joy in developing healthy relationships.
Next, the student will learn to lead their horse. This component provides therapeutic value as the student learns that leading and controlling are two very different things. They also begin to feel the difference between willing engagement and appeasement from the horse.
There are a lot of boundaries taught at this level. The horses must know where they should be walking with the student, not too close and not too far, and what behaviors are appropriate while on a lead line. This is determined by the student as they make known their preference with pressure-release form of communication. Some horses may be timid and afraid, refusing to move or adhere to set boundaries. These horses will require more investment in the relationship; promoting empathy, patience, and trust. Other horses may be more dominant, providing pushback against command. These horses teach the students that trust must be earned. They also learn the benefits of perseverance and loyalty.
Level 1 helps to enhance therapeutic progress in relationships by focusing on body language and approach, listening, respect, situational awareness, communication, boundaries, self-control, and attitude.
Level 2: Friendship
During the friendship stage of equine therapy, the student begins to work towards the mutual emotional relational benefits of physically getting on the horse. Horses are not always haltered in the arena.
During the friendship stage students will learn to:
- Use pressure/release communication
- Further develop their relationship and build trust with their horse
- Ask the horse to follow them willingly; without a halter
- Ask the horse to go over, under, around or through obstacles willingly
These exercises grow the trust necessary for a prey animal to be willing to let a predator on its back. This process is intentional, allowing the student to understand the free will of the horse and the value of positive relationships based on trust.
Students wear helmets during this stage, allowing them to be fully prepared should the horse allow them to mount. The students are also trained in mounting and dismounting safely, as well as other horsemanship skills.
This stage of the process includes an exercise in brain gym – a series of physical exercises done while mounted and facilitated by the therapist, to allow the student to experience neurodevelopment that bridges the gap between the left brain and right brain; allowing the brain functions to work together. It also helps develop balance and proprioception skills. The students also learn empathy, leadership and how to cope with rejection as they work to build the trust needed to mount the horse.
Level 2 helps to enhance therapeutic progress by focusing on integrity, critical thinking, trust, conflict resolution, coping strategies, follow through, leadership, and communication.
Level 3: Stabilize
This phase of the program features rhythmic riding. During this phase, students are riding the horses with bareback pads. These pads allow the student to feel the motion of the horse and to synchronize with their movement.
Students will ride their horses to the movement of music including soundtracks and worship style music. Using the rhythm of the music, the students can get in sync with their horse’s body and therefore engage in even more experiences that promote neurodevelopment and promotes good proprioception for the student.
Level 3 helps to enhance therapeutic progress by focusing on faith, trust, mindfulness, leadership, responsibility, and communication.
Level 4: Horsemanship
During this stage of the equine therapy process, students are trained in natural horsemanship which further enhances communication and leadership skills. Students learn to saddle and bridle their horse without help. They will also set their own riding goals under the supervision of equine staff. Here they continue to grow and expand their skills and abilities in horsemanship and leadership.
Level 4 helps to enhance therapeutic progress by focusing on self-awareness, mercy, empathy and refined communication.
Student Equine Goals & Activities
In addition to working directly with their horse, students are also encouraged to reflect and evaluate their progress. Students participate in an interaction scale exercise, determining and ranking their engagement with their horse.
Students will also complete an ERT individual self-report. This document is based on the level of the student, their goals, and progress. Finally, students are encouraged to free write in their Equine Notebook. Here they journal about their activities and what they are learning, successes and opportunities for each level of the program.
Students will also take a Horse Personality Questionnaire. After a few weeks of getting to know their horse, the student will complete this questionnaire. They will complete the questionnaire a second time at the end of their program. Here the students will discover their preconceived notions and assumptions about the horse in comparison to the horse’s real self and personality that is revealed through a deeper relationship over time. This gives the students a first-hand look at what it means to “judge a book by its cover” and why it’s best not to do that.
ERT is a proven researched form of therapy that has had tremendous results in the mental health field. It is an empirically-based therapy that can fill the gaps left in office therapy. It has been very successful at Shepherds Hill Academy in helping our families learn how to develop healthy relationships built on mutual trust, respect and communication