Equine Assisted LearningHorses - for poem click here 

Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) 
Equine-facilitated learning (EFL) is an educational approach to equine-assisted activities. EFL content is developed and organized by credentialed practitioners with the primary intent to facilitate personal growth and development of life skills through equine interactions. (see EAL is carried but within a framework and structure based on theories which enhance the learning experience through experiential methods and self discovery in a positive framework, with emphasis placed on a working relationship between client and horse.

According to Kruger and Serpell (2003) 'the mere presence of an animal, 'its spontaneous behaviors, and its availability for interaction may provide opportunities and confer benefits that would be impossible, or much harder to obtain in its absence'.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process for learning life skills, including how to deal with oneself, others and relationships with a view to attaining positive relationships in family, work, and personal relationships. SEL includes the goal to improve student attitudes and beliefs about self and others for life.

The Role of the Equine as Partner in Equine EAL

New scientific research continues to reveal critical information about equine sentience- their abilities of perception, cognition, memory, and emotions such as pain and fear. Equines are able to perceive, respond to and learn from the impressions they receive from minimal sensory stimuli. The stimulus may originate from changes in human biochemistry, body language, or vocal intonations. It can also come from changes in the equine’s environment, relationships with other equines, or the equine’s general health. In this way, equines make decisions based upon the stimuli they experience from others or from their environment (Hangg, 2005; Nicol, 2002; Proops, McComb, & Reby, 2009; Saslow, 2002). These abilities are based in natural, biological, physiological, and psychological traits of equines. Each equine is unique in personality, and has individual likes, dislikes and habits. The information gained from equine communication can be highly useful in all EAL settings. Listening to equine communication can have an effect on the care of the equines, their rate of burnout, and the success of the human-equine interaction. Viewing the equine as a partner invites opportunities for relationship building and skill building with all participants served.
For more information see: 


The concept that horses might be helpful or healing to people struggling with mental health issues is based on the idea that horses (as domesticated prey animals) are extremely sensitive to changes in the human being (as a predatory creature). Due to their sensitivity, horses react and respond to people differently based upon the person's emotional state. Since we know that emotional states in human beings also impact our physiology, it only makes sense that horses can smell or sense (using their vomeronasal organ) those changes. The horse acts as a large biofeedback machine, providing the client and the therapist with information regarding the client's moods and changes within those moods. If a client arrives anxious the horse will act and respond one way. If the client is able to reduce his or her anxiety, the horse's behaviors will also change. This provides a plethora of information and skill building opportunities for both the client and the therapist.
In an educational setting, horses and the lifestyle that goes along with maintaining horses, provides opportunities to teach critical life and communication skills. Horses mostly use non-vocal communication and thus are wonderful teachers to help us better understand and learn how our non-verbal communication might be impacting or influencing others in our lives. Horses also demand that we are aware of our surroundings at all times. In order to stay safe around horses we must be observant and present in our bodies. We have to listen to each other and to the horses. We have to stay focused and attentive. To care for horses takes dedication, time, and effort and our clients can learn a strong work ethic that may transition back into their daily lives. Furthermore, clients gain self-esteem and self-confidence while learning how to work with such a large and powerful creature. In all, horses provide us with a way to see our internal landscape and modes of operation exposed. They offer us humility, compassion, and challenge - all critical elements to supporting self-growth and self-awareness.

SEL History
The SEL term took its origin in the 80’s following programs mandated by the federal government in the USA to tackle rising problems with children such as drug use, bullying, unwanted pregnancies, school dropouts etc. 

Daniel Goleman had just begun publishing his work on emotional intelligence. This spurred the WT foundation to fund studies on the common Interactions with Horses
ingredients of success of the programs. These ‘ingredients’ included becoming more self aware, managing distressing feelings, becoming more empathetic, controlling emotional impulses and making sound decisions. Prosocial behavior was increased by 10 percent and academic achievement could be achieved on an equal par with other students who had higher IQ. Equally undesired behavior fell by the same rate. It was extended in the realisation that education the ‘whole child’ was beneficial regardless of IQ to achieve whole individuals who could relate to themselves, others and the community at large, to create a greater orientation toward social values and to have a greater likelihood of entering a helpful profession.

It included research on neuroscience that the brain is plastic and can be shaped at this age to change thoughts, attitudes and behaviors. This is of particular importance when the age is between 5-7 years and may be a brief window of opportunity to redirect future sociopathic behavior (Vachss 2004)
SEL programming is based on the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging and meaningful.
There are five core skills according to CASEL. They include five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies.
Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.
Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
Responsible decision making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.
Traditionally SEL is applied in the classroom but EFL offers a wonderful opportunity to take the theory outside the classroom for the following reasons:

  • Following the theory of biophelia hypothesis we can learn more in an environment that encompasses the environment, not only innately but also in a practical way of using the environment as extra information, expanding awareness from the self to the immediate field to the outer field. Horses as herd animals help us see the bigger picture, in how they relate to themselves, one another and their environment. They give immediate feedback.
  • Student engagement in physical activities allowing them to engage their bodies and learn more about their special awareness.


Application of EAL for SEL core skills.

Self Awareness
Proxemics or the language of personal space describes three zones of intimate, personal and public space. Exploring these zones with a horse present can be a wonderful way to make some self-realisations about where we are as individuals and in relation to others. Horses give immediate, accurate feedback when we engage in the practice of approaching them or being approached by them. The subtlety of their non-verbal cues and simply their presence can set up participants in EAL to be in a space of active listening and connectivity so as to begin to learn how to see and feel the dynamics.

Observing HorsesAn example of an EAL activity would be:

Have an observation of two or more horses loose in the arena. Ask the participants to observe how the horses relate to one another spatially. Answer any questions in relation to herd dynamics give instructions to enter the arena and choose a horse to approach. Begin to observe the signs the horses gives when it notices the approach and how it feels in the participants ‘s body too. Where possible, its better to have the horse loose gives it more choice to walk away. Give instructions to Have the participant approach the horse, the participant to observe the self and the horse for cues to notice when they perceived the horse to give a non-verbal signal. The three zones can be practiced in this way.
When their personal and intimate zones are approached without awareness (assuming the horses are not shut down) ignoring can be interpreted as disrespect and intimation in herd dynamics. This can be applied to humans also but the transfer in the experience makes it a remembered one, so it can be applied in every day life.
The participant will learn that the horse will only allow the approach if they are grounded. If they are angry or in any other way threatening emotionally to the horse they will also get feedback to show the impact of their ‘energy’ has on other’s response to them. Then they can learn to breath into the emotion, own it and try again.

The above exercise can be built upon in teaching mindfulness –like techniques to help regulate emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It also includes managing stress, controlling impulses etc

For example approach and connect, building up to taking a walk with the horse. The learning that we connect with others when we are connected to ourselves is a strong one indeed. Capturing that moment with a horse is one never forgotten. It promotes positive reward for actions and a realisation that things do not have to be so difficult. The motivation in wanting to be connected to the horse is powerful once experienced and practiced, also showing the reality that we need to stay in the practice of awareness of ourselves. Horses ability to ground us and to give us that feeling of being ‘wanted’, which, is very important for self-esteem and confidence.

Social awareness
The same example can be used for social awareness…in exploring herd dynamics participants learn about how their lives are based on their perceptions and that all our perceptions are based on our life experiences. In simply hearing the various comments made from observation time. 

EAL provides a vehicle to prevent violence, to expose hidden violence to children (link between animal abuse and interpersonal violence (Ascione and Arkon 1999, Ascione, Kaufmann, Brooks 2000))

Relationship skills
Teamwork is very productive for his area. Setting up an activity to design and build a course. Participants can see how they are in relation to others in a team setting. This can help them recognise their personality type and learning style. Also their areas that need some work can be exposed during such activities (clear communication, active listening etc). Then the extension of having a horse follow or be part of a team will bring in a different dimension, giving them an opportunity to further practice and build upon previously mentioned skills as the horse will not engage otherwise.

Responsible decision-making

EAL activities such as horse care and management relate and link to the impact of how we care for those who need care, are in our care, and the consequences of a lack of responsibility. For example, helping in mucking out, feed regime, grooming, turnout, rugging, watering etc. Such activities teach both self and other care and consideration. 

EAL is a powerful vehicle to engage in SEL in a real and meaningful way.
Extra information

Research outcomes for SEL
Social and emotional difficulties often start in early childhood (Brauner, 2006; Growing up in Ireland, 2009) with a greater prevalence reported connecting with horseschildren from socio-economically disadvantaged communities (Weissman et al. 1984, World Health Organisation, 2003.; Goodman, 1999; Spencer et al., 2002; Duncan et al., 1994; Knap et al., 2007).
Application of EAL: Involving parents as both role models (and adaptation to cope with both the male and female) and as a family unit teaching SEL concepts to parenting and other key
SEL skills begin to tackle the dysfunction at the most important stage of child development. In particular, the daughter, mother relationship, when approached with authoritarian or neglectful parenting style were seen to result in more difficulties in social and emotional learning difficulties.
In EAL work/sessions working on an individual basis with the horse and mother can help develop a mutually respectful way to approach motivation based learning and communication. For example, I would start a program for an individual approaching the horse and understanding acceptable boundary levels as a way to begin engaging in open communication with acceptance and active listening. I would then proceed with walking with the horse in connection. I would then move on to asking the horse to do more challenging tasks like following the mother without a halter. I would then move on to an exercise such as butterfly leading with the daughter and build upon other team approach based tasks. I would set goals for specific tasks to be worked on in the interim and receive feedback at the beginning of each session.
Expanding literature based on the link between maternal depression and poor social and emotional outcomes growing up in Ireland could hold potential for the application for EAL and EAP in breaking the pattern of low self esteem in women based on many factors, but held within a religious/fear based repression of disempowerment, emotional shutdown and repression of expression of feelings from early age coupled with a lack of permission to be heard in line with basic needs.
EAL programs can be adapted to help bring awareness around self-confidence, self esteem, self-care. empathy, emotional regulation, self-management and so much more. I would have a core intent in my goals to develop the concept of ‘Daring to Live” leaving the past where it should be and creating our own choice-based futures in presence and responsibility for the self. Horses can be beneficial in this theme to embody the experience of how it feels to be connected to a horse, to move in flow and ease from a place of presence and self awareness, to get a sense of oneself and the other (the horse) to recognise and maintain boundaries, to grow in self and other trust, to learn to engage with the self and others. All these themes can be explored with
REF: “The Complete Facilitators Handbook” By John Heron
Gibbs reflective theory
“Walking The Way of the Horse’ by Leif Hallberg
“Handbook on animal Assisted Therapy” edited by Aubery H. Fine
Excerpt from Jill Carey Social and Emotional learning.
Daniel Goleman. Goleman (1995) www,



Biophilia Hypothesis
This theory is based on a an assumption that humans have an innate attraction to all things living, which stems from an evolutionary survival
donna and specklesinstinct that our basic needs are met in nature for water, food, shelter, procreation etc. so in essence we feel calmer close to nature, and our attention and awareness of environmental cues increase our chances of survival.

My current practice is at my home where I live at the bottom of a mountain. The landscape displays an array of colours, shapes, movement and sounds. There are crows, ravens, magpies, swallows. Thrushes, foxes, hares, rabbits, badgers, and all those slugs, midgies…plants, flowers, etc
I am always amazed at how clients talk about the environment and feel how is connects with the work. For example, they might say ‘What an appropriate time for that gust of wind to blow” The horses respond in tandem with the environment. All may be quiet and nothing seeming to be happening when all at once two birds will make a noise and fly out of the trees and the horse will jump.- something changes, and this often seems to be in alignment with a shift for the client.
In a more direct way I can draw the clients attention to the wider aspect of nature. Children will usually ask their own questions but it can create wonderful conversation topics and application of thinking that milk may not just come from the supermarket.
Another example would be if its very cold and we talk about the rugs on the horses. There may be fear, new challenges and new tasks in this application which can push a client out of his/her comfort zone so they act instinctively and not so guarded as in an office/classroom environment. Clients can help to catch horses, watch them playing and grazing and playing together.
Last year we took a pony for a walk up the mountain and asked questions like ‘What would you eat if you were stuck here in the woods?’ The boys were 4 aged 12/13 who had special needs assistance from schools and had traveler backgrounds. When we got through the ‘we would go to the local Chinese takeaway. ‘ they began to think hard about that question. Something touched them in a way that was profound as they became quieter and more ‘themselves’. They also learned that although they had ‘lots of good trotters at home’ my horses would not let them near them unless they adjusted their approach. They appreciated the horse’s presence and willingness to be led after this learning, especially in an ‘open’ environment’ where the horse ‘could have run away at any moment’.
In addition, the physicality of movement and going uphill allowed them to rid themselves of excessive energy and be more quiet.


Learning Theory
Learning theory is based on any activity aimed at teaching something is more likely to reoccur and be reinforced if it is pleasurable. 

By engaging with horses (in a natural setting) attention may be diverted from an anxiety stimulating situation, like a stressful home situation. The person can be engrossed in a positive feedback experience rather than negative feedback.


Social Mediation
This theory refers to providing a learning environment with horses as mediators of human interactions. By their very presence animals can stimulate conversations by providing a neutral, interesting, different subject to focus on. Clients find it easier to discuss/display their inner thoughts, beliefs, perceptions, life situations and so on by projecting them onto a horse.

I had a 4 year old girl with diagnosed to be in the autisc spectrum. During the first session Donna, my mare became very relaxed, rested a hind leg and looked like she was sleeping. The little girl began to relax and sat on my knees. She said. ‘Donna is sad” Then she began to talk about how safe donna must feel in her ‘bed’ beside her friend (Speckles). When we visited Speckles, the girl said the same thing, that the pony was sad. At this point as an equine facilitated learning session it is important to keep to the present and focus on not allowing the scope of the session to go outside its’ limitation. (As a craniosacral therapist I can track the response somatically and facilitate release.)

activelistening2According to Kruger and Serpell (2003)
 'the mere presence of an animal, ‘its spontaneous behaviors, and its availability for interaction may provide opportunities and confer benefits that would be impossible, or much harder to obtain in its absence’.

Discuss this statement in relation to equine assisted learning and provide three examples of skills which participants could develop through the ‘mere presence’ of an equine during a session. (30)

The article by Kruger and Serpell expands on the above statement and goes through the different theories as to why this statement may be applicable whilst also including the aspects not covered.
The theories include biophilia hypothesis, learning theory, social mediation, attachment theory, transitional objects and social needs.

The sheer experience of observing horses in a herd or together, watching them interact, showing patterns, shifting patterns, can open doors to openness that may otherwise be difficult for both adults and children from any walk of life, or life experience.
In equine–facilitated learning we focus on a method of non-formal educational process with horses and people to create situations where transferable skills can be learned, experienced, embodied and extended as tools for daily living.

Through a combination of the various theoretical models proposed above we can draw from opportunities to enhance life quality through awareness and remembered experiences that were positive, self discovered, self ‘worked out’ /explored and communicated through a combination of interaction with oneself and others through both non verbal communication and a shift in perspective through the lens of a horse.
Being in the presence of a horse, when the facilitator can create therapeutic presence (attentiveness, bodily and sensory openness, enhanced awareness, connection, integration and focus), this can help create a safe feeling for the client. A facilitator who is therapeutically present models authentic expression and the even voice tone matching a body grounded can help the horse/s connect in a similar way. This lowers the level of anxiety, helps us move away from ‘the personality’ and into the authentic self and create an opportunity for curiosity

Skills that can be developed from ‘the mere presence of a horse’ include:

- Listening skills/ Non verbal communication - by observing horses it can open a discussion about how horses communicate without words Active Listeningand what ‘the energy’ of their behaviors might mean’ This is a very useful skill and topic on interest for us all, but in particular for those with aspergers and the autism spectrum, who are non verbal. Also, in particular for their carers who are all too often frustrated with not understanding how to connect with their children. The activity of grooming a horse teaches us skills of listening to many body feedback responses..-how hard to brush, where to brush, when to stop, etc. Listening skills can be extended to listening to our own ‘gut instinct’. Participants can learn to listen to the feeling inside and learn to trust their own initial responses/reactions to situations, people etc In this way the skill of taking care of one’s own safety can be experienced, embodied and trusted.

- Respect – When the horse is allowed choice to be free in a relatively large area and we ask a client to approach a horse and connect with it, the skill can be learned of mutual respect and experiencing feedback on the speed, way, awareness of self etc is necessary to reach a mutually respectful agreement about where to stand so both are comfortable.

- Boundaries - Even if horses are grazing and we simply observe we can see the special boundaries they give one another. This can be a topic for discussion and later felt. Horses show quickly how to ‘work out’ a negotiation for hierarchy. Once it is settled, there is complete acceptance of the result-no grudges

- Self esteem and Self Confidence - working and being with horses naturally instills a self confidence. Large powerful animals which can respond to the subtlest of cues from a human can give a participant the feeling of success. If something happens and fear is experienced, the horse’s supportive presence can help the person overcome the fear and move through some big blockages.


Attachment Theory
This theory describes the dynamics of long-term relationships between humans. As a baby and child, basic needs should be met to fulfill a sense of trust, safety and willingness to explore. We are affected by how we see ourselves, and other people, what expectations we have for relationships, how we feel about ourselves and what defensive habits we have learned.

The most important caretaker behaviors are associated with:
- Responding to the child’s physical and emotional needs promptly, consistently and in an attuned way.
- Responding to a child’s attempts at closeness in a welcoming way.
- Tuning into the child’s emotional states and demonstrating empathy
- Looking at the child with love
- Secure attachment affects self esteem, gives us a secure base
- Allows for eventual independence
- Enhanced social flexibility, social functioning and cognitive abilities.

Insecure attachment can be associated with:
- Emotional rigidity
- Difficulty in social relationships, impairments in attention difficulty in understanding the minds of others and risk in the face of stressful situations.

In understand attachment theory it is crucial to recognize the depth of pain involved on so many levels with those (including myself) experiencing insecure attachment.
There are four different types of styles to look out for. Knowing these can help us choose horses and activities wisely to ensure emotional safety for clients
1. Self–Sufficient style signs include being 'on guard' cutting off feelings (being tough), not good at nuances at other’s feelings and armoured. The chief fear is in getting hurt if we get close to another.
2. Pre-Occupied style includes signs of clingyness, needing reassurance, always wanting more closeness. The chief fear is abandonment so they will protect themselves by not letting the relationship feel as important as it is to them. There is a dependence and care taking as well as ambivalence displaying a heightened need for closeness and an angry rejecting quality. Strategies used to secure attachments drive others away. Signs include a heightened need for closeness, hypervigilance about attachment signals, questioning and testing other’s commitment, emphasing need and helplessness in order to get others to stay, punishing others for not providing what is desired, anger when attachment needs are not met.
3. Caretaker style
Compulsive caretaking, denying one’s own needs and focusing on the other person’s.
4. Disorganised style
There is a confused pattern ranging from fear to confusion. This pattern is found in children who have been abused, had addicted parents, or chronically depressed parents. Effects include:

  • marked imparment in emotional, social and cognative functioning, inability to self sooth, feeling blame for what was done to them and low self value, feeling alienated from the world, being vigilant and avoiding intimacy, use of dissociation, distraction /aggression or withdrawal as coping mechanisms, smaller brain size.

Observing the HerdI have outlined in detail the above as I see some of the biggest problems in human connection arising from these issues. In this sense, as facilitators we can begin to understand the pattern and the ’dance‘ of life.
In equine facilitated learning it would be important to change horses around for clients so they do not get attached when their treatments have finished.

It would be important to highlight connection, allow the experience but then show that it is possible with all the horses, and that all the horses are different and like different ways of connecting. This could help a lot in opening self awareness in relation to self and others.
The dance of those holding on to relationships for fear of abandonment can be a great learning in seeing how horses relate to one another and seeing the reality of the situation in the hope that self care and worth can then worked on. Similarly it can help us, as facilitators to understand more what the horses are showing us and be vigilant to keep emotional safety at hand.




efeta festina lente







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