Ask the Expert: Heather Jeffrey of Acres for Life

We feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Heather Jeffrey of Acres for Life, a stable that offers equine therapy for those in addiction and other mental health issues. 

Q: What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)?

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is an experiential approach to therapy and healing. It does not involve any riding, instead, all of the work is done on the ground with the horses loose in a herd environment. Instead of sitting and talking in an office, clients are out moving in the pastures and arenas, experiencing the learning. Because it does not involve riding, the horses and the clients are free to move about the space as they need to. The horses and the spaces/pastures/etc. become metaphor or symbol for clients in their life story ~ perhaps there is a horse out there that reminds someone of themselves, or another important relationship in their life, or a feeling, or incident etc. ~ through being able to identify those connections clients are able to explore their relationships with these things in life. They are able to self-distance from what has maybe been feeling stuck and can get new perspectives and insights! Clients can also practice coping skills and new approaches to interactions and responses. The horses are catalysts for change and much can be learned from being able to observe and interact with the herd!

Q: What types of needs and challenges can be addressed through Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy can be used by anyone to address any need or challenge as it is very adaptable. Because it is experiential, every session is different and based on the client’s needs! Our clients have ranged in age from 3 to 97. We can work with individuals, families, couples, and groups. Some of the main areas in which we work are mental health and wellness, addiction recovery, community support, empowerment, etc. Some of the mental health concerns that we commonly work with are: PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), depression, anxiety, grief and loss, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), FASD (Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders), RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), eating disorder, addictions, personality disorders, etc. That being said, clients are never a diagnosis at the farm! They are a being out with other beings, moving forward in their lives!

Q: Can you explain more about how Equine Assisted Psychotherapy works and describe the therapeutic approach?

It works because clients are able to externalize things that maybe have been feeling stuck inside of them. For example, we had a client years ago who was struggling with suicidal ideation. Nothing seemed to be working! They came out for an equine assisted psychotherapy session. On that day there were 8 horses in the sunshine, grazing together in a group, and one horse stood alone in the back of the shed with his head towards the corner. The client upon entering the pasture went directly to the horse that was alone. She stayed with that horse for the entire session – talking to him, petting him, and crying. Upon checking in with the client at the end of the session we asked her what had happened out there. She began to tell us about this horse – “she feels so alone” “she doesn’t think anyone cares for her” “no one even remembers that she isn’t there” and as she went on we knew that she was telling us her story through this horse. Her following sessions became about her moving this horse back into community, in the sunshine – and as she helped this horse find community, she too found community!

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Our approach is experiential and so it is highly adaptable to whatever the client needs and the horses bring forward. Through being able to externalize the pain or struggles a client is having they can get some distance on it and find new perspectives and things begin to unlock! It isn’t about talking, it is about doing and experiencing. Every client has a human team of a qualified mental health professional and an equine specialist and their horse herd. The human team helps facilitate the session as they bring in aspects of the client’s treatment goals. Clients can talk as much or little as they feel comfortable! The horses become metaphors and symbols for clients as they share what is happening in their life. Perhaps they see an interaction in the herd that looks like a relationship they are in for example! The human team’s goal is to hold the space for the client’s story to come out and support the process, asking externalizing questions and helping to create opportunities to explore various aspects of what they are dealing with through: observation, relationship, movement, and creation amongst other methods!

Q: How can EAP support my recovery?

Jeffrey with horse

EAP is a way for clients in recovery to put their recovery into action. It gets the steps to living life in recovery and puts them into action as opposed to keeping them in their head. Reciting the 12 Steps does not mean that there are behavioral shifts for example! Working with the horses, clients have the opportunity to ask clearly for what they need. They can experience surrender and also powerlessness. They can put into action in a safe place moving their life into recovery instead of trying to fit recovery into their old life! There will be times a client is triggered and in this space they are able to explore different responses to this trigger in a safe place free from judgment and expectation. They can practice coping skills and approaches!

We had a group out years ago ~ and they were trying to move their life into recovery. They had an area marked out by cones that was their “recovery life raft” and they needed to gather there with each other and the three things they identified that they would need to live in recovery. They identified “Fellowship” “Higher Power” and “Serenity”. They affixed labels to three horses that could each represent one of these three things and then set to work – splitting up to get the three things they could need and deciding to meet back at the “raft”. “Fellowship” came easily, walking along with them as they headed towards their recovery life raft. During that time, “Higher Power” had actually moved there by himself! So there they were, several of the guys in the raft with “Fellowship” and “Higher Power”. “Serenity” though wasn’t as easy to come by! The guys who had gone to bring “Serenity” back were struggling. They pushed and pulled and sweated and sweared and “Serenity” was not budging. All the guys left “Fellowship” and “Higher Power” in the raft and all came down to try and move “Serenity” – still he wouldn’t budge. Finally they all threw up their hands and went back to the raft and gathered back up “Fellowship” and “Higher Power” and it was at That Moment that “Serenity” lifted his head and walked towards them and joined them at the raft! THAT is how EAP works! They went on to process serenity and surrender and powerlessness and working in fellowship to find recovery.

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Q: Does the horse need to go through any special training?

The horses do not need to go through any special training as we want them to be them! Horses are incredibly intuitive and can read non-verbals, and so we want them interacting authentically! That being said, we do interviews with the horses before they become part of the team. We want to know what their go-to response/reaction is to people being people. We touch them all over, lift their feet, pet, run, cry, sit, throw something in the air etc. — we want to know how they will react! If their first response is to bite or kick they are not a good fit! If they are curious, or move away, or respond in other ways, great! We also work with them outside of session to provide whatever they may need when it comes to exercise – physically and mentally!

Q: Would I need any special knowledge or riding experience to benefit from EAP?

Nope! There is no horse experience necessary. It is not about horsemanship or anything like that. It is about relationship and connection!

Q: What if I am afraid of horses, can I still participate in EAP?

Absolutely! Because they are in a herd environment out in a large space, you can choose how close or far to get. You have your human team there for support as well! You can choose who you want to interact with and how! Some clients choose to stay outside of the fence and observe from there ~ that is fine too! The fence then becomes part of the story ~ i.e. what does the fence represent that you can stay on the other side of when facing things that you fear. The horses being large, unknown, and powerful, etc. all becomes part of the story because that is how life can feel sometimes!

Heather Jeffrey, MA, LADC, CTC, Acres for Life, Eagala Model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Advanced Certified Practitioner, ARCH Founding Member.  In 2007 Heather joined the Acres for Life team. Heather loves all aspects of equine assisted psychotherapy including facilitating sessions, herd and facilities care, program development, horse and human resources, community outreach etc. Heather holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Conservation and Biology and a Masters in Integrated Recovery for Co-occurring Disorders and has years of experience working with individuals, groups, families and youth in a variety of experiential learning and therapy modalities. Heather is the Chief Operations Officer at Acres for Life and is working towards her hours for LPCC licensure.

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Last Updated on May 15, 2021

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