Psychotherapy with Horses on Oahu's North Shore

Horse Sense: Got a long face? Maybe a horse can help.

CP the horse makes a bond with Christiana Sollars during an equine therapy session demonstration at Sunset Ranch.

photos: courtesy carina cooper, thinkstock

From The Black Stallion to Mister Ed, horses have long been portrayed as trusted, mysterious and all-knowing sidekicks that can lead a hero to victory. In real life, a therapy method known as Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) relies on the spontaneous, natural interaction between a horse and an individual. The experience is said to inspire personal growth and healing.

Last year, Carina Cooper, who is fortunate enough to have owned her own horse from the age of 14, started Hawaii Equine Assisted Reflection & Therapy (HEART) at Sunset Ranch on Oahu’s North Shore. “My horse was my best friend,” she says, about her reddish-brown quarterhorse C.P., which stands for Call’im Perfect. “As a teenager, having him to bond with was huge for my confidence and self-esteem. I wanted to be able to share that experience with others.”

The therapy covers a broad range of needs, from couples therapy and corporate team-building to substance abuse, depression and posttraumatic-stress disorder. One to five horses are used in each session, depending on the situation. The horses aren’t trained. “Horses absorb and reflect energy. That’s what allows them to survive as prey animals; they need to have a strong sense of awareness,” explains Cooper.

A toolbox of activities is used in treatments, from grooming to leading the horse around the arena. The tasks serve as metaphors for the situation the client is dealing with in their life. Cooper recalls working with a 12-year-old girl who had experienced repeated trauma. She lost her parents, stepparents and uncle, and had gone through several foster care homes. “All three horses continued to approach her, stop, and walk away in unison. When we asked what she believed was happening, she explained that they were checking her out, and then leaving to make a game plan. This is what she felt has happened throughout her life: adults making decisions for her.” In response, she was asked to design what she wanted her future to look like, and to lead the horse through this vision.

No riding is involved; Cooper says this reduces the physical stress on the horses. In addition, a licensed therapist or life coach is always present in the arena, as well as a licensed equine therapist, whose main role is to ensure that the session stays safe, for both the horse and individual.

How exactly do the horses pick up on seemingly hidden feelings? “It’s unexplainable, yet we witness it all the time,” says Cooper. “I’ve seen my horse do things with another person that I’ve never seen him do before with me.”