Updated: Apr 4, 2021
By Dr Alexandra Button
When I was at primary school my best friend had a pony ‘Minty.’ We spent so many hours riding him, grooming him and being with him. I loved every minute of it. I started riding lessons at 11 years old and then started volunteering at the stables on a weekend. Every other weekend my poor dad would get up at 5.30am to get me to Dartmoor where I’d spend a whole Sunday looking after the horses, mucking out, cleaning tack, accompanying rides. I used to come back exhausted, smelly and very happy! I always felt so connected to nature and at the farm I was around people who all accepted each other for who they were, just like the horses did. It was good for my soul. I became a clinical psychologist in 2006. I trained at Coventry and Warwick University and developed a special interest in people’s recovery from trauma. Sadly, when I headed off for University I didn’t continue riding and wasn’t around horses until a few years ago. My daughter was having a hard time at school and my sister knew a family with a farm where I was able to take my little girl riding. Being back in the farm environment and around the horses reignited my passion for having more time with horses in my life.
Combining horses with my work
My decision to incorporate horses into my business came a few years back. I had been going to the farm with my daughter while she had riding lessons and loved the environment. I used to watch the lessons and spend time with the other horses. It was a strange co-incidence that led me to the LEAP course. Their advert came up on my Facebook page with a video attached. I decided to watch the video. I wasn’t sure how it would work from the video, but as the credits rolled, I saw the name of my first ever clinical psychologist supervisor while I was an undergraduate. She’s a pretty eminent psychologist within the forensic psychology world and if she was involved, I knew it would be something worth exploring in more detail. I went on the introductory day and much like with EMDR, had a very powerful experience that had me sold. I signed up for the Level 5 Diploma but wasn’t sure how I’d make use of it. I just knew I was burnt out in my NHS role and looking for something new to get my teeth into. Half way through the Diploma, I was raving about it on the phone to a friend and my husband just suggested I leave the NHS role that was depleting me and become self-employed so that I could throw myself into EFP and EMDR. I spoke to the farm owners who were delighted. They had wanted to offer something similar for years but none of them were mental health trained. It was a perfect match. They closed the riding school which they had been wanting to do anyway and the horses that retired from there have become EFP therapists! I started the EFP practice in May 2019.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
When people ask me what equine assisted psychotherapy is, it’s not actually that easy a question to answer because it’s so unique for each client, but I’ll give it a go! It involves horses as co-therapists in the therapy process. Horses are herd animals. They are highly sensitive to the energy around them as this helps them to survive in the wild. They pick up on changes in energy levels and respond accordingly. If energy is high and they feel threatened they will move away, whereas if the energy is low and they feel safe they will connect with people around them. Clients coming for equine facilitated psychotherapy generally wish to build relationships with the horses and make connections with them, emotionally and physically. In order to do this, clients need to learn to manage their energy and emotions. In addition to this, clients view the horses’ behaviour through the lens of their own experiences. For example, a client who is experiencing difficulties in relationships with an overbearing boss, may interpret horse’s breaching personal space as akin to that of the boss. This opens the forum for exploration of those difficulties, what feelings it brings up, how the client responds and why, and what could be done differently. The LEAP method I am trained in, involves the use of particular exercises to address difficulties with a variety of issues such as relationships, trust, trauma, emotions, boundaries etc. The method unfolds as the clients work through sessions and no two sessions are alike. Different people and different horses bring new dimensions and energy to the space. I have found equine facilitated psychotherapy particularly helpful for clients who cannot tolerate sitting and talking in a closed office space, or who are unclear of what they are struggling with emotionally, or where processing in EMDR is blocked. The horses essentially ‘show’ us what is happening for the client so that it can be worked on. I am always aware of how the different horses are responding to the client and how this may be mirroring relationships the client has away from the therapy space.
Pivotal moments in EFP
I have seen a few clients have some eye-opening insights in EFP. The one that stands out most for me was a client who had been seeing me for EMDR for a few months. She struggled with the EMDR process and with being mindful. She happened to attend the farm for EMDR and commented that she’d love to work with the horses. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it! In her third EFP session she completed an exercise leading a horse through an obstacle. The exercise wasn’t technically that hard but it completely floored her. It evoked such a strong reaction in her that I don’t think we would have got near in EMDR for a while due to her psychological defences. The next week she told me she had given in her notice as she realised that being in a leadership role was really difficult for her and wasn’t something she had ever wanted to do. She had done it because it was expected of her. The exercise had helped her find her voice and regain some control in her life that had been missing. I get the most satisfaction from watching a client manage to do something with the horses that they never thought they would at the start of therapy. For some clients this is being with one of the bigger horses and leading it around the arena, for others this is undertaking a more complicated exercise such as ground tie. Witnessing the joy people experience when they nail those exercises is amazing. It really instils confidence in them and I get to watch this grow.
Finding balance in my own life
Going into private practice was in itself a way of me finding reprieve from the pressure of the job. Being my own boss I can decide what hours I work and find that balance in my work and personal life that I never had before. The horses have taught me to put more boundaries in place. If I ever do have a gap between clients when I’m at the farm then I can often be found just spending time grooming or being with the horses in the arena. I find myself instantly calmer and more grounded when I am with them. I don’t ride, although I would like to. The horses I work with are retired and I respect that. I also like to be around nature generally, so I am often out with my dog Henry in the local woods or at the beach. Just being around the horses helps ground me and slow me down. I have a tendency to be busy all the time and on auto pilot but with the horses, this feels disrespectful. Now I have built relationships with them and they view me as one of the herd, I can’t just rush around and ignore them. I love grooming them and doing breathing in time with them. I like to practice mindfulness by slowing my breathing so they slow theirs. I love watching them calm and find it really nurturing when they seek contact with me.
My work and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic hit my business hard at the start. Thankfully I was able to move the other aspects of my therapy and supervision practice online, but I did miss going to the farm and seeing the horses. Lockdown made me re-evaluate how hard I was working. I had got into bad habits of working long hours and rushing around again but I was made to stop overnight. I gave up my Torquay based office and have increased my hours at the farm, which is a good thing for me as I get to spend more time with the horses and in the wonderful farm environment. I have reduced my hours to fit with school and the other days a week I work online only. This has had a positive impact on my mental health in that I am stricter with my hours now and stop doing admin around 6pm instead of 9 or 10pm as it used to be. I had to re-assess my finances during lockdown and it made me realise I could do less and still be financially fine.
For anyone considering working therapeutically with horses I would say do it! It’s such an important part of my life and work and I have seen first hand just what a difference it can make to people.
Dr Alexandra Button is a Clinical Psychologist, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapist and EMDR Consultant. She specialises in treating adults and children who have experienced trauma. She is based in South Devon and works from a farm near Newton Abbot two days a week and online three days a week. If you’d like to know more or contact Dr Button, she can be reached via the website www.drbutton-psychology.co.uk If you would like to read more about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy these 2 books come highly recommended by Alexandra: ‘The Horse Leads the Way: Honoring the True Role of the Horse in Equine Facilitated Practice’ by Angela Dunning, and ‘Walking the Way of the Horse’ by Leif Hallberg. If you would like to know more about the LEAP Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy training please visit https://www.leapequine.com/