If a "therapist", licensed or not, approaches you with the idea of using horses for equine facilitated learning or psychotherapy, make sure they are competent in working with your horses in order to implement therapeutic techniques using them. Legally and ethically, mental health and social work clinicians/therapists, as well as psychologists, must operate within their scope of competency. What does that mean? If they haven't been trained, had proper supervision, and experience, then they have no business trying to "diversify" into a specialized area until they acquire proper training, experience, and supervision. And be careful, there are individuals out there that will try to justify their involvement with horses because they are qualified to work with pets, such as dogs.
I just completed a 3 day workshop by PATH for certification as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning in Ocala, FL. It's not as simple as taking a 3 day workshop and you have your certification to be "competent". Most people know that anyone can "certify". I did my homework to find out what was the premier organization, world wide, that does this specialized training and sets the standards and guidelines. In addition to attending the 3 day workshop (which was not cheap), PATH requires that individuals pass an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (ESMHL) Horsemanship Skills Test. You need to prove you know how to handle and lead a horse. (Which I passed :). It doesn't stop there. Additionally, you're required to pass the ESMHL exam, as well as PATH's Standards and Guidelines exam, which comes from a 300+ page manual. Furthermore, candidates must participate in at least 60 hours of an equine assisted learning and/or equine psychotherapy sessions with a credentialed mental health professional, or you are required to spend at least 30 hours with a PATH Therapuetic Riding Instructor (TRI) and 40 hours volunteering inside a mental health facility. On top of that, candidates must have a letter of recommendation from a psychologist or licensed mental health professional who is competent in equine facilitated learning and equine psychotherapy. And the candidate is required to participate in at least 30 hours of equine behavior and management training, in addition to providing a letter of recommendation from an equine specialist/horse trainer, etc. Furthermore, the candidate must complete both basic First Aid and CPR classes. It's not a simple process, nor should it be. Interacting with 600-2500 lb animals in any, especially a therapeutic, environment should not be taken lightly or done unprofessionally.
I applaud PATH for setting guidelines and standards for this specialized field of learning and therapy. I also congratulate them that in 2013 their guidelines require that only credentialed mental health specialists can become Equine Learning Facilitators practicing both Equine Assisted Learning and Equine Psychotherapy. While this announcement was devastating to many of the TRI's attending the workshop in which I participated, I understand and support that decision. Why? Because credentialed mental health professionals have invested a lot of time, education, experience, and finances into their training to be professional helpers. Trying to teach horse people to develop and implement equine facilitated learning programs, while attempting to draw lines between it and equine psychotherapy is very muddy and potentially dangerous. It's as unsafe as mental health professionals trying to use horses in therapy that have no experience or training with equines. The risk, is doing harm to a client and that simply can't be an accepted practice under any circumstances. Above all, we professional helpers are taught to "do no harm". Precautions to prevent this must be implemented by both professional helpers and equine owners wanting to "diversify" by offering equine facilitated learning and equine psychotherapy. Collaboratively, mental health professionals and equine specialists in mental health and learning, can deliver an evidence based treatment that is like no other treatment. While there is a need for research in this area, anyone who has practiced it or experienced can attest to its effectiveness. Winston Churchill was right in saying, "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of man".
As for me, I plan on submitting my portfolio to PATH to become officially certified as an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning as soon as I complete the rest of the requirements. From what I understand, PATH will "grandfather" me in as an Equine Facilitated Instructor, since I will have the mental health credentials. I will also continue doing a mental health counselor internship, through the end of April, with Dr. Sandra Wise of Eye of Horse Equine Education Center through Florida Gulf Coast University. Dr. Wise is one of the leading psychologists in the world doing this type of therapy. Additionally, I plan on doing research on the effectiveness of equine facilitated learning and equine psychotherapy this coming fall with Dr. Russ Sabella of FGCU, while I study to complete my exit exam in the Mental Health Counseling program at FGCU.
Competency should not be taken lightly or cut short for the sake of "diversification", profit, or the desire to jump on the "band wagon" of creative therapies. Our client's well being is at stake and their safety and welfare should be a priority in our practice under all circumstances, whether it be in an office or in a barn, arena, or pasture.
For more on Beauty From Ashes™ Ministries Equine Programs, CLICK HERE.
Julie Shematz is the Executive Director, President, and Founder of Beauty From Ashes™ Ministries. She is also a full time graduate student at Florida Gulf Coast University, set to graduate in 2013, with a degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Mrs. Shematz maintains a 4.0 overall GPA and is a member of the PATH International, Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and the Appaloosa Horse Club.
Dr. Sandra Wise is leading a session with a woman facing a difficult life situation finds herself outside her "comfort zone," avoiding decision making, and feeling that she is "not on track." In this short excerpt, viewers can see how this therapeutic model employs the horse both as a metaphor and as a catalyst to facilitate therapeutic issues coming to the surface.