At first thought, a secluded horse pasture 35 miles north of the Twin Cities is about the last place you’d expect to find a group of therapists honing their craft. However, upon closer examination, you’d find that the unique interaction between horse and therapist provides the basis for a fresh way of thinking about human behavior and communication.

In late August, Northstar, in partnership with Acres for Life – A Center for Growth and Learning that provides equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning, presented two sessions designed to provide added dimensions to the way therapists work with their clients. The sessions were Beyond Words: Realizing the Power of Nonverbal Communication and Revitalizing the Therapeutic Relationship.

Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is experiential in nature, meaning that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing (or discussing) feelings, behaviors and patterns. The approach has been compared to the ropes courses used by therapists, treatment facilities and human development courses around the world.

“The use of horses for therapy has the advantage of utilizing living, social beings that are naturally intimidating to many because of their size and power,” says Lynn Moore, LADC. “Horses require focus, ‘mirror’ human body language, provide immediate feedback, are not judgmental, require trust and live in the moment.”

The environment creates a natural opportunity for some to overcome fear and develop confidence. Working alongside a horse creates confidence and provides wonderful insight when dealing with other challenging situations in life.

The focus of EAP is not on riding or horsemanship, but rather on setting up ground activities involving horses that requires the client or group to apply certain skills. Non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking and problem solving, leadership, work, taking responsibility, teamwork and relationships, confidence and attitude are several examples of the tools utilized and developed by EAP.

Session participants left with greater insight into the depth of information available when looking beyond words to other communication forms, such as body language, eye movement and voice tonality. It deepened their awareness of their personal communication styles and also provided tools to uncover blocks, bias, strengths and resources to help revitalize the therapeutic relationship.

“It was valuable to be in a new environment for learning, and to work through my own anxieties and sense of intimidation while staying open to the process,” says Pat Pardun, a family therapist and certified gambling counselor who attended both sessions. “I also appreciated the reminder about non-verbal communication – the importance of paying attention to client language to learn more about how they process and file information – and the importance and effectiveness of speaking to clients in their language and moving with resistance.”

For additional information on Acres for Life, please visit acresforlife.com.