A Year in Equine Relationship Therapy at Shepherd’s Hill Academy
Equine Relationship Therapy (ERT) is an important therapeutic component of the year-long program at Shepherd’s 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 Stages of Progress in which students work to achieve and master during their time at Shepherd’s Hill Academy. Each stage requires students to develop both relationship skills and horsemanship skills.
Stage 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. Horses are incredibly perceptive, challenging students to truly invest in their relationship.
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
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.
They will also progress to refining communication through:
- Use pressure/release
- Further develop their relationship by building trust with their horse
- Asking the horse to follow them willingly; with and without a halter
- Asking the horse to go over, under, around or through obstacles willingly with and without a halter on.
There are a lot of boundaries taught at this stage. 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.
The Acquaintance Stage helps to enhance therapeutic progress in relationships by focusing on the relational skills of responsibility, situational awareness, communicating healthy boundaries, follow through, self control, leadership, respect, encouraging others, trust, listening, communication, patience and problem solving.
Stage 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 mount and emergency dismount practicing on a dummy horse. They will be asking the horse to line up along the fence line or mounting block without a halter on, allowing it to exercise it’s own free will to be ridden or not. Once the horse willingly stays in position to be mounted, the student eases into the higher position by first petting it’s back and progressively becoming more connected without mounting for the first few times. Once the student can pet all over from above the horse (from mounting position) and can lean over the horse and relax legs on the horses back from the fence while the horse is still un-haltered. 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 are prepared with helmets nearby during the advanced part of this stage, allowing them to be fully prepared should the horse allow them to mount. The Friendship stage helps to enhance the therapeutic progress by focusing on the relationship skills such as planning ahead, taking positive healthy risks, exercising faith, showing compassion relaxing in relationship, empathy and critical thinking.
Stage 3: Forming a Partnership
This stage of the process begins after the first mount. It includes learning proper set up and preparation in tack (bareback pads and sidepull) for riding and steering. They begin to work together in a partnership to achieve goals. The student begins to refine communication skills from a different position and works on successfully directing the horse over, under, around or through obstacles while riding. It also helps develop balance and proprioception skills. The students work on developing empathy, leadership and how to cope with rejection as they work to build the trust needed to mount the horse.
The Partnership stage helps to enhance therapeutic progress by focusing on relationship skills such as critical thinking, confidence, fine tuning communication, good planning, patience, mindfulness, self sacrifice, encouragement.
Stage 4: A Stable Relationship
During this stage of the equine therapy process, students are trained in natural horsemanship which further enhances communication and leadership skills. 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.
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. The Stabilized stage helps to enhance relationship skill progress by focusing on self-awareness/regulation, follow through, connecting emotionally and allowing for positive change in self.
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 through an ERT individual self-report. This document is based on the stage of the student, their goals, and progress. Finally, students are encouraged to freely and creatively write in their Equine Notebook. Here they journal about their activities and what they are learning, successes and opportunities for each stage of the program.
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 Shepherd’s Hill Academy in helping our families learn how to develop healthy relationships built on mutual trust, respect and communication.