Horse Power: Equine Therapy for ADHD
Connecting with a horse builds relationship skills in people with ADHD — and helps patients feel comfortable in their skin.
Living well with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) means more than managing symptoms and getting things done. We want to feel good about ourselves, control our emotions, and have healthy relationships, too. One problem with traditional talk therapy and ADHD coaching is that each requires a level of self-awareness that not all patients have. How do you teach someone without a filter to be less impulsive by talking about it?
How to Develop Trust and Connectedness
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is different. It’s an experiential process in which clients interact with horses — with the guidance of a specially trained mental health professional and an equine specialist — instead of talking about their problems.
Natural Lifemanship is one model of EAP that is effective for treating ADHD. It is a trauma-informed approach based on neuroscience and the role of healthy, connected relationships. As it turns out, horses have a lot to teach us about relationships. They are highly selective about their interactions with humans. There must be trust and mutual respect.
In Natural Lifemanship, clients learn to regulate their body energy and pick up on non-verbal cues to build a relationship with a horse. This is the kind of thing that many people with ADHD struggle with. The horse provides immediate feedback to the client’s actions as other humans can’t or won’t do. Clients learn to control the chaos in themselves, then to control the chaos around them.
Deb Huber, a Licensed Professional Counselor in Pennsylvania, who uses Natural Lifemanship in her work with adults and adolescents, says that it benefits those with ADHD by building focus, self-control, and social skills.
“Horses provide non-judgmental feedback about our behaviors and emotions,” she says. “As you interact with the horse, you learn to observe and respond to his responses, and to moderate your interactions by becoming aware of the congruency between inside feelings and intentions and outside behaviors.” Her clients have seen improvements in self-esteem, confidence, communication, trust, impulsivity, and empathy.
“The horse is a large, powerful animal,” says Huber. “Learning to overcome fear or intimidation while building a relationship promotes social and problem-solving skills.”
EAP Reorganizes the ADHD Brain
According to Bettina Shultz-Jobe, Licensed Professional Counselor and cofounder and CEO of Natural Lifemanship, the symptoms of ADHD and child traumatic stress overlap. Exposure to trauma can result in intense dysregulation of the central nervous system. This often presents as hypervigilance—constantly scanning the environment for the next threat. Individuals with ADHD also struggle to regulate their responses to the environment.
In the last 15 years, Shultz-Jobe has worked primarily with clients who have experienced chronic stress and trauma. Many of these clients have a previous diagnosis of ADHD. She has found that Natural Lifemanship alleviates symptoms associated with ADHD. It uses specific interventions, such as relational connection, that “reorganize” the brain, making integration and regulation possible.
“When there is a free flow of information throughout the brain, the neocortex, specifically the frontal lobe, guides or overrides the lower regions of the brain. This results in less aggression, fidgeting, forgetfulness, and anxiety,” she says.
Laying the Groundwork for EAP
Natural Lifemanship starts with literal groundwork, as you stand on the ground and build the foundation for your relationship with the horse. One exercise involves establishing connection. The client makes a request to connect by using a concept called “pressure and release.” Varying amounts of “pressure” are applied through body placement and movement. The client doesn’t touch the horse. You’re saying, “Let’s connect,” without words or physical coercion.
The horse has three choices: He can comply, ignore the request, or resist. The client’s job is to notice what he does and respond appropriately. If the horse complies by acknowledging the client in some way, the client releases the pressure by moving away and/or reducing his or her body energy. The horse feels rewarded and his good behavior is reinforced. He begins to get the idea that a connected relationship is a good thing. Another choice he could make is resistance. If he resists the request and walks away, the client maintains the same amount of pressure. This is like saying, “I’m not going away, I’m serious about this relationship.” If the horse ignores the request by doing nothing, the client increases the pressure. “You don’t seem to be noticing me, but I still care about you!” When the connection has been established, the horse will follow the client around the pasture, because he wants to be with the client.
“Mindfulness is a way of being in the session with the horse as clients gain the skills needed to respond to the horse moment by moment,” says Shultz-Jobe. Those skills include focus, patience, frustration tolerance, reading social cues, and being non-judgmental. What is learned in the pasture is transferable to human relationships at home.
I worked with a highly distractible young woman who found it hard to quiet her mind or be still. At the end of one session, she and her equine friend stood cheek to cheek looking out the gate. After a while, I asked her what they were looking at. “Oh, nothing,” she said. “We’re just enjoying the moment.”