Red Horse Foundation
An Interview with Lisanne Peters, Director
The Red Horse Foundation offers Equine Assisted Therapy and Equine Guided Learning for individuals and groups of all ages in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England. Lisanne spoke with Session Notes about this unique form of therapy and the challenges it faces in the UK.
Session Notes: Tell me a little about yourself and about the Red Horse Foundation.
Lisanne Peters: I actually started with a healing training. It was quite an intensive, three-year healing training. At the same time, my children were becoming independent and I became involved with horses again. I had been around horses and had ridden them as a child, but I never considered it as a career.
A key moment was when I was offered a very damaged, very abused horse. He was going to be put down, but he was a lovely strong, young horse. He was 8 years old and his name was Freddie. I had him for four years, and when I started you couldn’t get near him. I had to stand in a field for 6 hours before I could even get close to him, let alone touch him.
During that time, things like natural horsemanship and equine assisted therapy were coming out of the woodwork. A friend put a book in my hands: The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov. It all happened at the same time; I was working with this horse and doing my healing training and all this time I kept thinking ‘Crikey there’s something here…’ And then I read Lynda Kohanov’s book (see below to purchase) and I thought ‘Wow, this is something! Ok, it does exist.’ I went on and got my EAGALA training. The friend who had given me the book owned three horses at the time, and I had three horses and a local school approached us and asked us to provide equine therapy for them…That was eight years ago.
We started up Red Horse Foundation pretty quickly, on the back of this contract with the school. However, at the last minute after everything was put into place, the school backed out. It was a bit like life was trying to play a trick on us. From there, it was like well, 'we’ve done it and we’re here now, we have to keep going.'
The first three years were very difficult; nobody had heard of this type of therapy. Eventually, people started coming to us from youth projects, and we started to see clients from the drug and alcohol recovery centre located right next to us. Slowly, it built. About 5 years in, clients were being referred to us from all over the local area. The word was getting out.
SN: It seems like mental health is still trying to find its footing here in the UK. There’s a lot of talk about reducing the stigma, but I think there's a disconnect between the talk that’s going on and actual counselling jobs being created. It’s mostly volunteer based at this point…
LP: You’re right. It’s a very good point. Though there are a growing number of people who now pay privately for regular long term counselling and psychotherapy. You know, recently Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have come out recently to support mental health awareness…
SN: Yes, with Heads Together! It’s fantastic.
LP: Yes, and that will help, but there’s still so much shame. For a British person, saying that they’re having therapy is still shameful. I think that’s part of the problem, but it is starting to change. I think it’s also part of the reason why equine therapy is more acceptable for some people.
SN: Really? How has the response to equine therapy been different?
LP: We tend to get two types of responses. One is ‘Oh that’s a bit whacky, it’s not been researched, it’s not been proven, we can’t possibly use it.’ For example, we are starting a programme for veterans and we just applied for some funding for the project. We approached a head of the NHS services for veterans, and he said to us; ‘I know equine therapy works, I’ve seen it work. But I cannot refer my patients if you’re charging for it, because it isn’t yet evidence based. There’s no empirical evidence.’ Hopefully, we will get the funding for our project, but it is challenging to need to keep fighting our corner.
So there’s that side…but there’s the other side where we’re seeing centres pop up across the UK. This is because it is effective and people are noticing. As long as you keep going, the results are there.
SN: Is this type of therapy recognised by the BACP (British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy) or UKCP (UK Council for Psychtherapy)?
LP: No…not yet. There have been quite a few studies done now, but more research is required. I happen to be personal friends with the professor of psychiatry at the Charité University of Berlin, and he’s doing studies as we speak with veterans using equine therapy. So it’s coming…it’s coming.
SN: It seems people are intrigued by it, but at the same time they’re hesitant to get behind it.
LP: Yes, and you know it’s one thing working with smaller animals like dogs or cats …they also have their place in therapy, but the horse is a very powerful animal. And if you’re not an animal person or if you haven’t had much exposure to horses, they can be quite intimidating. The fact that they are big, powerful and gentle animals, also makes them big, powerful, and gentle therapists. We can call them the Powerful Prey. Communicating and building a relationship with a horse teaches us many skills in the managing of ourselves too. Horses are very willing to help us. They are very sensitive to what we are thinking and feeling and mirror back to us our thoughts and feelings.
SN: What’s the history of equine therapy?
LP: In the 1970s, two models started to emerge side-by-side: EAGALA and EPONA. Linda Kohanov set up EPONA. They are very different models. EAGALA uses practical metaphors, it’s experiential and solution-focused. It’s great with children, young people, and veterans because it’s activity focused. EPONA leans more towards the traditional counselling/therapy model and the human therapist has closer more hands-on role with the client. The EAGALA model requires 2 facilitators, whereas EPONA has a single facilitator. It’s subtler and often longer-term.
These two organisations haven’t thought much of each other over the years. They each have criticisms of each other, which are valid, but as a therapist, when you put them both together you get the best of both and have a much bigger toolkit. At Red Horse we use both models, depending on the client’s needs.
SN: What kind of clients do you see?
LP: We see a broad base of clients; at-risk young people, anorexia, self-harm, Trauma and PTSD, adopted children struggling to adapt and autistic spectrum clients. We also have a constant flow of ‘normal’ therapy clients the same as you would see in any counselling and psychotherapy practice. Our niche is stabilisation in trauma.
SN: I remember from my training with EAGALA that the horse is very involved in the process. It’s all about noticing what’s going on in the arena, specifically any shifts in the participants (including the horses), or the environment.
LP: 100%. It’s about the relationship between the horse and the client. Our job as the therapist is to reflect back what is going on. The interaction between the horse and the client brings emotional/psychological awarenesses up in the client. We reflect all of that, and then we try to understand it. Once you’ve got that, you can work towards new patterns of being, new ways of doing things that can then transfer into their lives. I think people can be surprised by how powerful it is.
SN: Could you share an example of a powerful moment with a horse and a client?
LP: I’m thinking of a client we had a few years ago who was very shut down. She was referred to us from a rehab unit because she wasn’t engaging in treatment. The only thing she would engage with was a dog. She wouldn’t do any sort of person-to-person engagement. She was a young girl who had come off the streets of London with a heavy drug addiction and had been in a very abusive relationship. The aim of the treatment was to move her out of this relationship, which would be the key to stopping the habit.
The first time she came, she didn’t speak to us, but she really clicked with one of the horses and he really responded to her (in fact, it was Freddie, the horse I mentioned earlier). He became the most wonderful therapist mainly because he had experienced lots trauma himself. Something happened where they recognised the trauma in each other. That’s the kind of magic that you can’t really put into words. She returned to the rehab centre and they reported that she engaged in treatment from then on. They bonded in that first session.
Later, there was one particular session using an activity called ‘The River of Life’ (it’s a classic one done towards the end of treatment). You invite the client to set up three obstacles and name what the obstacles represent. What’s getting in the way of their future/changing and moving on? She didn’t share with us what the particular obstacles were, but she and the horse cleared the first two. But when they got to the third one, the horse stopped and wouldn’t go over. She paused and stood there for quite a long time. Eventually, she took him away from the obstacle to the far corner of the arena, buried her head in his side and broke down in tears. Obviously, we knew that was a breakthrough moment and eventually she managed to tell us that this third obstacle represented the relationship that she was trying to let go of. She knew the horse had stopped because this relationship needed to end in order for her to move ahead in life.
SN: Oh wow! That’s amazing!
LP: It can be very powerful. It takes quite a long time to build up the trust in the process, but once you do, incredible things happen.
And just to finish the story on the girl, she did recover, she finished her treatment, and she keeps in touch with us!
SN: What’s one thing you wish you knew before getting started in this type of therapy?
LP: It’s a tough game. It’s wonderful working with horses and not being in an office (I wouldn’t change it for the world), but it’s very challenging. People don’t often realise that you’re also working with the weather and the seasons, and it’s very hard to make a living. There’s a lot of goodwill that goes into it. You’re running a horse yard alongside a therapy business, and you’re holding the sessions, and the environment. It’s a lot to cope with. Anything can change at any time.
I would also like to say that anyone who practises equine therapy really needs to have a mental health training. It’s a must precisely because the therapy can be so powerful and it can affect clients suddenly and deeply. A facilitator needs to be prepared to hold this and also the horses involved in the session.
[Note: In the UK, requirements to practise counselling are much more relaxed than in the US. A degree or license in mental health is not always required in the UK. However, EAGALA (a US-based organisation) requires ‘both a registered, credentialed Mental Health Professional and a certified Equine Specialist’ to practice under their model.]
SN: What’s next for RHF?
LP: As I mentioned before, we’re pursuing funding for our veterans’ programme beginning next year.
We’ll also be offering a skills & practise training for counsellors. It won’t offer certification, but we want to offer a deeper experience and the opportunity for people to come to immerse themselves in it. Basically, to practise the craft before actually doing it. We’re planning to offer that next spring.
SN: Do you think EAT is growing?
LP: Oh yes!
SN: That’s good to hear! It’s easy to get caught up in the fact that it’s not being recognised and there’s a big research gap. That can be really discouraging. But more and more equine therapy practises are popping up.
LP: I was told recently that there are over 30 different places in the UK that use it. That doesn’t sound like a lot nationwide, but compared to what we’ve come from, it is.