Equine-Assisted Mindfulness-Centered Ecotherapy


For the last 16 years, from 2007 t0 2021, we were doing equine-assisted psychotherapy (Horse therapy for short), mainly at Cherokee Creek Boys School (CCBS), but also, for part of that at Whetstone Academy, where I also served as Interim Clinical Director for a while. Both of these are residential therapeutic boys schools for middle school aged boys, 11-15–from affluent families and not adjudicated–and are located out “in Nature.” That is, they are not in urban areas but out in the countryside. The boys at these schools were enrolled by their parents who were desperate to have help with their teens/pre-teens who were increasingly out, or already out, of control and unmanageable–and had the money and resources to send their boys there.

During the last 2-3 years at CCBS, I started increasingly introducing mindfulness approaches for the boys horse therapy sessions in both groups and individuals. Animal-assisted psychotherapy is a part of ecotherapy. It was my adding mindfulness to the therapy mix that was innovative as far as I know. This post describes a little about that mindfulness approach and working with the horses and boys.

Carl (left) and I doing a horse therapy session at CCBS

I say, “we” were doing horse therapy, because it was a team approach: me, the therapist; Carl Rathz of CBR Horses, Inc., the equine specialist (a horse trainer by profession), and, of course the horses, who were the real therapist in this approach. We used the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association’s (EAGALA) model. 

I had been working for nearly a year as a therapist at CCBS, which is located way out in nature in the boonies on the edge of the Togaloo River. As a therapist there I incorporated a lot of ecotherapy into my sessions: e.g, walk-and-talk out in nature (I mean, Nature was all around us. This was a field station at one time.), group sessions, and indigenous drumming sessions for the boys to identify their archetypal power animals and power places (subject of a future blog). I held many of my sessions with the boys outside; even visited and drumming meditations at a nearby Native American (Cherokee) burial site. It can be spooky what can come up in the latter.

In the meantime, back home at the ranch, a.k.a., my mini-farm, having sold my Harley, I had converted some of the acrearage into pasture for grazing, built

Apache (dark horse) and Sally, another mustang.

fences, and had gotten Apache, a real, live, ornery mustang. Carl was working with me, as in teaching me, how to train him. It was a ‘training’ for both myself and Apache. This was pre-EGALA. I kept remarking to Carl how working with Apache–and training him–was a lot like how I worked with my boys at CCBS, and suggested to Carl that maybe we could get trained and use the horses with the boys at the boys school. He wasn’t keen on the idea, saying he didn’t want to work with people, he wanted to work with horses, i.e., training horses.

One day, I got on the Internet and did a Google search. It didn’t take long before I found the EAGALA certification program. I managed to talk Carl into going to it. There was a pretty steep fee, but he went anyway. I had talked CCBS in paying our tuition so that we could bring horses to the boys. From day one at the training, I was blown away by the power I saw in the approach! Carl and I both got certified, he as the equine specialist and me as the mental health specialist. Shortly after that we started taking the horses out to the boys school.

Before I get back to the mindfulness approach, let me say that the boys had a range of diagnostic issues from Asperger’s, Autism, Anxiety, Depression, ADHD, “Attitude,” with a capital “A”, etc. These boys in large part were spoiled brats; entitled rich kids, not use to having to do much for themselves or being held accountable. Not all, but many. Many had been to years of talk therapy and some of them attended a therapeutic wilderness program before coming to CCBS. You could tell the difference between the boys that had worked their way through a wilderness program and those who had not. The boys tended to be fluent in psychobabble–throwing out and rationalizing their behaviors using psychotherapy ling; BS-ing their way out of having to do things they didn’t want to do; or avoiding accountability… Welcome to Horse Therapy, boys! They hit a wall with the horses. Couldn’t get rescued (we didn’t do rescue), had to do the task assigned (a.k.a, follow the instructions), and the horses didn’t speak psychobabble. For many, it was a life changing experience–a whole new attitude had to be developed. They hated it! Well, most did. Once they started making the changes though, suddenly the Horse Therapy started getting easier–and they started making progress in the rest of their therapeutic program. Now to the mindfulness part.

Mindfulness-Centered Horse Therapy

I first introduced the boys to mindfulness, explaining the concept and starting each group session with a brief 2-3 minute standing mindfulness meditation. They soon learned that if they didn’t stand still that we could be there all session practicing until they got it right. To be truthful, I wan’t real hard core on this and tried to be reasonable. So, it was more like a “relatively” still. Some of the boys had ADHD, heavy on the high activity side and standing still was a real struggle for them. After the standing mindfulness meditation, we would move on to the days group exercise. In individual sessions, I would have the boys do a mindfulness session where they would do 3-4 mindfulness exercises–all with the horses of course: Brush a horse, Leading a horse around in a walking meditation, and a Standing meditation. All of these exercises utilized following their breaths with each activity and coordinating their breathing with their activity. For example, in the Brush exercise, they were told to brush down while inhaling, then to raise the brush slowly upward while exhaling. It was interesting to watch, once the boys got in the ‘zone’ and rhythm, the horse would just stand there, when the boys’ got out of the zone, the horses would often become antzy.

In the Leading exercise, they were to coordinate their steps with their breaths while leading the horse slowly around the arena: e.g., three steps while inhaling, three steps while exhaling. I also encouraged them to experiment with how many steps worked best for them on the in/exhales and demonstrated for them. The vast majority through those years would speed their walk up and keep forgetting about counting their breaths. Even here though, you could watch a shift in the horse’s behavior. Once (and if), the boy got into the rhythm/zone, he and the horse would be walking side by side effortlessly. At the end of these exercises, I would ask the boys which method had been most calming for them?

Meanwhile, several of the boys’ regular therapists back up at the lodge had started incorporating mindfulness in their sessions with the boys. When the boys would become frustrated doing one of their exercises in horse therapy, I would remind them to practice their mindfulness, which often helped them with their frustration and agitation levels when they would do it.



This Post Has One Comment

  1. Sandy Morris

    Darryl…. You explained it so well!!!! A powerful tool that was so successful for many!!I sure do miss you both!!!!!!

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