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IMGCA Article - The Mental Game of Equestrianism


Learning to Be Me:

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and The Healing Spirit of the Horse

Shannon Knapp

In the field of psychology Equine Assisted Psychotherapy offers a unique opportunity to explore your emotional behaviors with horses.

Throughout the ages humans have searched for many ways to understand our selves. A variety of healing and therapeutic modalities have assisted people with life's struggles, taught us about the Self and helped create stories that became myth and legend. As psychology and the study of the human mind evolved, we began to use new techniques. Language became the basis for mental and emotional growth; to lie on the therapist's couch a standard practice. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), therapeutic work done in the presence of horses, a licensed counselor or psychologist, and an equine specialist reminds us that the natural world reflects humanity and teaches us about who we are as individuals and how to live in a more satisfied way. Horses willingly give in an EAP setting and the healing spirits of these animals can change us in ways we never imagined.

The Power of Biofeedback

One of the most common questions I have been asked when discussing my experience with Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) is why horses? Why these animals and not dogs or cats? The answer is simple; horses are animals of prey. Predators, such as dogs and cats can make wonderful companions and are capable of rich and deep relationships. A horse, however, must observe every movement, smell and sound around them in case they have to use their best natural defense: speed. In order to run and escape a predator they must always be registering and paying attention to what is around them, including humans. Horses check to see if our insides match our outsides, they search for the genuine and the authentic in us because it's how they survive. If we appear calm but inside we experience emotional turmoil, horses know. If we appear happy but inside we feel afraid, horses sense the fear. The biofeedback horses are able to provide allows us to see our hidden emotions. We must then claim these emotions as our own and be held accountable for them.

Emotional Habits

One of my favorite writers Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, talks about group dynamics and the concept of cooperation. Whether personal or professional, working with others is an important skill. Goleman asks the question "How can you know when to lead and when to follow?" Horses live together and they have much to teach us about leadership and relationships, give and take. In an EAP or EAL session you learn what your leadership and relationship style is. You find out if this style is effective or if changes are necessary. Of course these realizations come in an atmosphere of non-judgment, which allows for greater integration so change can occur. Goleman also often discusses insight and the process of identifying patterns in your emotional life and recognizing similar patterns in others. EAP and EAL create a format in which the horses can reveal to us our emotional habits. You begin to understand and see clearly the patterns that exist and what patterns lead to happiness and satisfaction and what leads to pain and suffering. The healing spirit of the horse shows us we have a choice to live in one world or the other.

Invite the Challenge

Over the course of my life I have learned much from my horses. As an EAP and EAL professional I learn everyday about my fears, weaknesses, strengths and gifts. These things are shown to me by the relationships I share with my horse companions. Horses contain a mystery humans can't fully comprehend and defining them as beasts of burden and animals just to be ridden is to deny the greatest gift they can offer to us. EAP and EAL, as we practice it, involve no riding. The simple act of being in the presence of a horse is to accept the challenge to know yourself better and more completely. I live a fuller life because I accept this challenge every day and I allow the horses to teach me. To learn more about EAP or EAL or to read the stories of horses involved in this incredible work please visit my web site at

Shannon Knapp is the co-owner and President of Horse Sense of the Carolinas an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning Center near Asheville, North Carolina. Horse Sense specializes in individual, family and group therapy sessions, leadership training and workshops geared towards personal and professional growth. She can be reached by visiting

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