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Jan 30, 2013

Horses as Counselors: Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy, EAGALA-style.

This week we will be climbing out of the saddle to learn about the experiential groundwork techniques of the EAGALA method.

What is EAGALA, you ask?

EAGALA is an acronym for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an organization near and dear to my heart. EAGALA is an international non-profit organization that was founded in 1999. Currently, there are over 500 EAGALA certified programs located in 41 countries around the world.

I am a certified EAGALA practitioner and utilize the model as a foundation for my Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine-Assisted Learning programs. As defined by the requirements for EAGALA certification, I qualify as a mental health professional and an equine specialist – I will explain what this means in a bit.

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy & Equine-Assisted Learning:

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) are experiential approaches designed to help clients identify, face and work through life issues. Clients dealing with mental health issues that are often dealt with in traditional counseling practices, such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief, addiction and behavior modification, may be excellent candidates for EAP. EAL is similar to EAP, but the focus is more toward education and skill enhancement. EAL programs often focus on social skills and leadership development. EAL is very useful when working with groups from schools or the corporate world.

EAP and EAL utilize a different approach than traditional therapeutic horsemanship programs in that the clients do not ride. In fact, the horses play a completely different role in the therapeutic process. The goal of EAP and EAL is for clients to interact with horses from the ground, observe the horses’ reactions to them and then identify ways these reactions could be metaphors representing something going on in the client’s life.

I am often posed the question: How is it possible for horses to represent something in the client’s private life? I answer this question by explaining the basic nature of horses. Horses are very intuitive creatures and possess an acute sense of awareness to everything that is going on in their environment. They are extremely sensitive to the actions of humans and have the uncanny ability to pick up on our non-verbal behavior. Horses are completely honest in the way they react to situations. They do not have the ability to lie or gauge their reactions to spare anyone’s feelings. I can tell you from personal experience that if I am in a bad mood when I get to the barn, my horse lets me know it immediately by becoming grumpy and difficult. Therefore, I find horses to be a fantastic instrument to use when getting a “read” on what is going on with a client. I find them particularly useful with clients who are unable or unwilling to verbally communicate their thoughts and/or feelings.

What is the EAGALA model?

Well, in a nutshell, the organization describes the method as a “standard and structure for providing Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning sessions. Practicing within a model establishes a foundation of key values and beliefs, and provides a basis of good practice and professionalism. The EAGALA Model provides a framework of practice, but within that framework, there are infinite opportunities for creativity and adaptability to various therapeutic and facilitating styles.” For more information, check out the EAGALA website:

That said, the most distinctive features of the EAGALA model are as follows:
• The Team Approach – A Mental Health professional, an Equine Specialist and horses work together with clients in all EAGALA-based sessions.
• Focus on the ground – No horseback riding is involved. Instead, effective and deliberate techniques are utilized where the horses are metaphors in specific ground-based experiences.
• Solution-Oriented – The basis of the EAGALA Model is a belief that all clients have the best solutions for themselves when given the opportunity to discover them. Rather than instructing or directing solutions, we allow our clients to experiment, problem-solve, take risks, employ creativity, and find their own solutions that work best for them.
• Code of Ethics – EAGALA has high standards of practice and ethics and an ethics committee and protocol for upholding these standards, ensuring best practices and the highest level of care.

More about the EAGALA Team Approach:

Are you stumped by the team approach? I certainly was when I began researching this model. Concerns over confidentiality and the therapeutic relationship immediately began to swirl around in my mind. However, in practice I find that clients are happy to have the team to work with and I have yet to have anyone object to having my equine specialist in sessions.

EAGALA provides a great description of each role. The horse is considered an integral part of the team.

• The Horse – Horses have many characteristics which lend them to being effective agents of change, including honesty, awareness, and ability with nonverbal communication. The role of the horses in an EAGALA session is to be themselves.
• The Mental Health Professional (MH) – The MH must be appropriately licensed and is responsible for treatment planning, documentation of clients, and ensuring ethical practice. The MH builds on the ES’s horse observations, bringing in the metaphoric and therapeutic/learning relevance of the session.
• The Equine Specialist (ES) – The ES chooses the horses to be used in sessions, works with the MH to structure sessions, keeps an equine log to document horse behaviors in sessions, stays aware of safety and welfare of clients, horses, and team, and makes observations of horse behavior, which can bring in potential metaphors.

As mentioned above, I am usually the mental health professional in sessions, but my experience with horses qualifies me to act as the equine specialist as well. I occasionally take on the equine specialist role and I enjoy the different perspective it brings to sessions. I find that helps me perform better when I return to the role of mental health professional. I am often called a “horse-person” but, to date, I do not qualify to be in the horse’s role.

What does an EAGALA-based EAP session look like?

As with any counseling method, practices vary and I find that every EAP session I conduct is different from others. This is because EAP is experiential and each client is in a unique situation. However, I do operate within a basic framework. As in my traditional counseling practice, I work with clients first in an office setting to identify issues and set goals. Then, we head to the barn. I usually have the horses at liberty within an arena or pasture. I also keep the horses “au naturel” and do not have halters or any tack on them during the session. Throughout the session, I ask the client to participate in a variety of activities that requires interaction with the horses. This is where the client drives the process. The activities may range from simply being in the horse’s presence to asking the horse to navigate an obstacle course. It really depends upon the client’s needs and goals. My closing process varies as well, but often involves giving the client the opportunity to “set the horse free” either metaphorically or literally by turning the horse back out in the field. I then give the client the opportunity to verbally process what happened during the session. Some clients want to talk about it, others do not. Nonetheless, most of my clients report that they develop a new sense of self-awareness from working with horses that is transferrable to other areas of life.

Interested in learning more about EAGALA?
The EAGALA website is a great resource:
Feel free to contact me:

Lisa Krystosek is a counselor in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Equine-Facilitated Counseling to help adults, adolescents and children improve their lives. To contact Lisa, please visit

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