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From traditional to equine-assisted psychotherapy: mental health practitioners' experiences




Lee, Ping-Tzu, author
Granger, Ben, advisor
Dakin, Emily, committee member
Jennings, Louise, committee member
Quijano, Louise, committee member

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This study explored equine-assist psychotherapy (EAP) mental health practitioners' experiences with horses and EAP, examined the differences between EAP and traditional psychotherapy from these participants' perspectives, and developed the biophilia hypothesis as a potential theory for EAP. This study was conducted using a constructivist narrative approach. It was guided by Wilson's (1984) biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that humans have an innate tendency to pay attention to animals and nature. The biophilia hypothesis also suggests that the more humans come to understand other creatures, the more humans value both other creatures and themselves. The primary analytic strategies were a zoom model and a thematic analysis. The zoom model focused on how participants told their stories and attempted to keep each participant's overall story intact to preserve sequences. The thematic analysis emphasized the content of stories and focused on finding patterns in segments of the participants' stories. Using concepts from the biophilia hypothesis, I suggest that the zoom model is analogous to art and that the thematic analysis is analogy to science. I conducted two semi-structured, individual, face-to-face interviews with eight participants (four social workers and four counselors) who had at least two years of experience with practicing both traditional psychotherapy and EAP. Each interview lasted one to two hours. After transcribing each interview, I combined inductive and deductive coding and utilized the computer-assisted qualitative software N-Vivo 10 to assist with the thematic analysis. Participants described evolving relationships with horses they started from low awareness to high awareness about their relationships with horses, and then they moved to value horses' roles as teachers in their lives. Participants described practicing EAP for both personal and professional reasons. Furthermore, they indicated that they drew from horses' strengths to complement their therapeutic work. Participants indicated that they are much less active in EAP sessions than they are in traditional psychotherapy. Specifically, participants indicated that in EAP sessions they stay quiet, are guided by horses, ask important questions, and accept that the therapeutic environment is much less controlled than in traditional psychotherapy settings. Drawing from the biophilia hypothesis, participants' roles and strategies in EAP are similar to naturalists' roles and strategies in a field, and this view of therapists represents a paradigm shift in psychotherapy. Participants stated that EAP decreases the power differential between clients and therapists. They also indicated that it provides a non-verbal and masculine approach that may be appealing to clients who are not comfortable in traditional psychotherapy settings. I discussed various theoretical and practice implications from this study for social work and the larger field of mental health treatment. Furthermore, I provide recommendations for future studies, including studying equine specialists, conducting interdisciplinary research, and exploring the uniqueness of EAP.


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equine assisted psychotherapy
equine assisted therapy
equine facilitated therapy
equine guided education
equine therapy
traditional psychotherapy


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