This is an article written about me by The American Counseling Association – Counseling Today Magazine two years ago that I wanted to share with you.
Straight from the horse’s mouth—Counselors praise the benefits of equine-assisted therapy
By Angela Kennedy
Some time ago, Kay Sudekum Trotter arrived at a muddy Texas horse ranch wearing capri pants and sandals and wanting to learn more about equine assisted counseling. By the end of the afternoon, her cute outfit was dirty, her shoes ruined, but this self-proclaimed city girl had been roped by this nontraditional approach in which horses aid in the counseling process.
Today, Dr. Trotter is a licensed professional counselor and supervisor, registered play therapist and supervisor, and a certified equine assisted counselor in private practice in Flower Mound. In the countryish suburb of Dallas, this American Counseling Association member runs her own traditional counseling practice along with her equine assisted counseling practice, Mendin’ Fences, where she provides unique counseling services to children, teenagers, and families with behavioral and mental health issues. “I’m not the traditional girl who grew up loving horses, so over the years, I’ve learned not only what horses can do in a therapeutic setting, but I’ve also had to learn just the basics,” Dr. Trotter says. “They still tease me about showing up to the ranch in flip-flops.” Not being a “horse person” has actually proved beneficial when speaking to other counselors about equine therapy, Dr. Trotter says, because she can let them know from firsthand experience that they don’t need to be professional wranglers to successfully apply this approach.
As described by Dr. Trotter, equine assisted counseling utilizes horses to increase clients’ awareness of their own thoughts, words and actions. Through counseling, team building and equine activities, clients learn how to recognize dysfunctional patterns of behavior and to define healthy relationships. This is made possible in part by the horses’ innate ability to observe and respond to nonverbal cues. In the counseling process, the horses serve as living mirrors, reflecting clients’ emotional and behavioral states. “Because horses are prey animals, they have honed their skills to pick up on and read body language,” Dr. Trotter explains, adding that horses are much more adept than humans at sensing when something is going on beneath the surface. “If I have an ADHD client come out for a session and he’s bouncing all over, the horse will be leery of the client. The client will learn that if he wants the horse to change, he will have to change his behavior, thoughts and feelings. The horse is that sensitive.” “The other powerful element within equine therapy is the noticeable shift in control and power within the client,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of work with young people in juvenile detention. Out here on the ranch, the head of the gang is no longer in control because he’s now face-to-face with a 1,500-pound animal.
You don’t have that shift with other animal-assisted therapy.” Dr. Trotter says she has experienced some profound breakthroughs with teens in the juvenile court system while working with horses. “I have some of the most wonderful sessions with these juveniles because they don’t realize they are in counseling,” she says. “By the time these kids come to me, they are familiar with court-appointed therapy and traditional, four-wall counseling sessions. They can give you all the textbook answers. But you get them outside in this different setting, and they don’t realize what I’m doing. They tell me everything, and it’s so genuine.” In forging a bond with the horses, Dr. Trotter says, clients identify their negative behaviors and learn positive communication and problem-solving skills to handle frustrations, challenges and fears.
There are different ways to have clients interact with and relate to a horse, Dr. Trotter says.
- Tactile and touching: Includes grooming or giving the horse a massage. Interacting with such large animals empowers the client while increasing self-esteem and self-confidence. The rhythmic motion of grooming can also be soothing and calming for both the horse and client.
- Verbal: The way the client speaks to the horse can reveal how the individual relates to other people.
- Riding and groundwork: Leading the horse from the ground or in the saddle can provide insight into a client’s sense of power or helplessness.
Because of the large size of the horses, Dr. Trotter doesn’t feel comfortable counseling children younger than 8. She believes, however, that equine therapy is compatible or appropriate with most diagnosed issues. With clients who aren’t as activity-focused, such as some individuals with autism, Dr. Trotter instead helps them face their fears by building a relationship with the horse.
Dr. Trotter prefers to have clients perform activities both on the ground and in the saddle. The groundwork usually includes a series of tasks, challenges or simple grooming methods to help the client form a bond with the horse. As these activities transpire, Dr. Trotter works side-by-side with the clients to provide insight and help process feelings. The ground-based and ridding activities also help clients formulate solutions to problems. The activities can be difficult, requiring clients to be creative and think outside the box. Through these activities, Dr. Trotter helps clients explore what skills were needed to accomplish the task with the horse. She can then prompt clients to think about whether they have similar problems occurring in their personal lives and consider if the solution that proved successful in working with the horse might work for the client outside the ranch as well.
Dr. Trotter recently began working with a third-grader who exhibited behavioral problems and poor social skills associated with pervasive developmental disorders and dyspraxia, a neurological disorder that affects motor coordination. At school, he displayed severe anxiety and oppositional behavior and threatened others. The boy had struggled with these problems for more than six years, and his mother told Dr. Trotter that her son had a hard time establishing friendships. He was usually left to play by himself.
After only a few sessions working with the horses, his behavior and social skills have improved significantly. The mother told Dr. Trotter that her son recently had his first play date, which lasted more than two hours without incident. He was invited to come back and play again whenever he wanted. “This shows us that this client is taking what he has learned (with the horses) and is using it in his everyday life,” Dr. Trotter says.
One of her biggest success stories involves a young boy recently diagnosed as bipolar. In one of the beginning sessions at the ranch, he and another boy were partnered in a group session and asked to groom the horse. “The horse just wasn’t having it,” Dr. Trotter says. “He kept on acting like he was going to kick or bite, though he didn’t. We were keeping a close watch.”
Dr. Trotter needed to determine which boy the horse was reacting to, so she had them approach the horse individually. The horse reacted negatively to the boy diagnosed with bipolar. “That gave me the opportunity to ask him what he thought was going on with the horse. Why was the horse acting that way?” she says. “The boy just kind of rolled his eyes and said, ‘I don’t know.’ I pressed a bit harder, and he told me that the horse just didn’t like him. I asked him to think about that and why this horse might not like him. He left and came back the next session and said to me, ‘The horse doesn’t like me because I don’t like me.’ He was 9 years old! When I think about that kid and how many hours that would have taken in an office setting to get that kind of insight, it just amazes me that it came that quickly. Once that child admitted that, he had no problem with the horse. They were congruent, and we saw all kinds of positive changes with him. That sticks out as the most dramatic example, but we see pieces of this type of transformation all the time.”
During her years of leading equine assisted counseling, Dr. Trotter has worked with children and adolescents who have presented with a variety of issues, but she thinks the approach might have the most profound impact on children with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder similar to a high-functioning form of autism. “
(These clients) tend to come out of their shell,” she observes. “The barn environment is something so different from what they are familiar with at home or at school. It introduces them to a whole new set of stimuli, and because they are drawn to the animal, they learn to adapt more quickly.” With this population, she notes, the therapy is less about mental health treatment and more about skills training and general improvement. “It may be romanticizing it a bit,” Dr. Trotter says, “but I think the connection between these kids and the horses is something very powerful for both the horse and the child. It’s a very deep link made on an emotional level.”
While working on her dissertation at the University of North Texas, Dr. Trotter discovered in her research that equine assisted counseling can be as effective as traditional clinical therapy or, in some cases, even more beneficial. She compared the experiences of children and teens in a 12-week equine-assisted therapy program with those who remained in a classroom setting for traditional guidance counseling. “We had over 205 volunteers, and 164 actually completed the study,” Dr. Trotter says. “The students were in grades third through eighth with all different kinds of issues, from ADHD and autism to just being socially inept to being incest survivors.”
Teachers, school counselors and parents referred the children and adolescents. The students were then assigned, by grade level, to one of two weekly therapeutic interventions: either two-hour sessions of equine assisted group counseling held in a ranch setting or one-hour sessions of curriculum school-based group guidance in a classroom setting. According to Dr. Trotter, the study showed that equine assisted counseling resulted in increased positive behaviors and decreased undesirable behaviors in clients.
“We discovered that both modalities were clinically significant, but the equine (therapy portion of the study) showed clinical significance in seven different areas that the in-school therapy didn’t,” she says. “Overall, the equine study showed improvement in 19 areas and the in-school only in five areas.”
Dr. Trotter used two assessment tools in the study, the Behavioral Assessment System for Children (BASC) and the Animal Assisted Therapy—Psychosocial Social Form (AAT-PSF). “I chose the BASC checklist because with this assessments I could give to both the parent and the child,” she explains. “I had conducted a lot of play therapy research prior to my equine research, and the play research never included the child. I thought it was important to know what the child felt about counseling, not just his mom and dad. With the AAT-PSF, I was able to run repeated measures statistics and these findings told me where I had significant changes between the sessions.” She was then able to refer to her notes and see exactly what clinical intervention was used during those sessions that proved to be so effective.
The journal article written from Dr. Trotters research “The Efficacy of Equine-Assisted Group Counseling With At-Risk Children and Adolescents” is available for free download from Dr. Trotter’s website a:t http://www.kaytrotter.com/estore.htm
If you would like Dr. Kay Trotter to come talk to your group or find out more about her counseling practice, you can contact her at: Kay@KayTrotter.com, 214-499-0396, or visit her web site http://www.KayTrotter.com.
Dr Trotter also post regularly in her FaceBook fan page http://www.facebook.com/DrKaySudekumTrotter.