Taking life by the reins

Equine assisted learning can help both adults and children.

September 11, 2008 11:54
4 minute read.
Taking life by the reins

horses 88 224. (photo credit: Betsy Yizreeli)


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What happens when two horse lovers from completely different backgrounds, who have both been riding since childhood, realize they share a vision of using horses for healing? Daphna Shwartz and Bertha Cafrey, who recently returned from an advanced training course in Texas, spoke to Metro of their enthusiasm for their work with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. EAGALA - a non-profit organization - was founded in the US in 1999. It became immensely popular and its European affiliate was established in 2003. Unlike other forms of riding therapy, "equine assisted growth and learning" is performed at ground level, with participants leading the horses, not sitting astride them. Cafrey and Shwartz explain that equine assisted learning is an appropriate way for any group or individual - adults and children - to work on problems with communication, self-awareness and confidence, conflict resolution, relationships, responsibility, anger management, and leadership. Shwartz, who has been riding since she was 12, studied psychology and education. When she developed an interest in animal-assisted therapy, she moved with her husband, Kobi - head physiotherapist at Bnei Zion Hospital - and their four children to Moshav Aviel, near Binyamina, where she now keeps six horses and runs the Israeli branch of EAGALA. Cafrey was born in Cambridge and made aliya in 1973. She has been passionate about horses since she was six, and one of her two children works as a riding therapist. She and her husband Yigal live in the pastoral Moshav Ofer, near Zichron Ya'acov, where she keeps ponies as well as a number of two-wheeled horse-drawn contrivances (including an Amish carriage) and plans to build stables. By the time Cafrey and Shwartz met, they had both undergone extensive training as riding instructors. Shwartz was also certified by EAGALA. "When I studied animal-assisted therapy, I wondered if utilizing horses' instinctive skills in reflecting human behavior could also be adapted for learning and development. I searched the Internet, found EAGALA, and went to England to train," Shwartz says. Since then, EAGALA representatives have visited her ranch and trained 30 Israeli facilitators. This writer spent two hours at Shwartz's ranch, accompanied by Cora Tresman, who teaches dyslexic children. Initially, we were instructed to lead two horses into the middle of the paddock, using - if we wished - a harness and ropes. Both of us were reluctant to impose our will on the horses, and they resolutely refused to move. "The horse reads the environment," Shwartz explained. "That's how they survive. They can read body language very accurately." In the next exercise, Tresman and I worked together. Guiding one horse through an obstacle course, we each held a rope attached to its harness. Working as a team, we tightened the ropes or let them slacken appropriately. The horse understood and performed the tasks without hesitation. For a second attempt, the ropes were replaced by thin wool, and we were far less comfortable and competent in guiding the horse. Reading our hesitation, the horse refused to move. Eventually, it did follow us, but knocked over all the obstacles. "The way a horse relates to us and the social interaction between the horse and ourselves can help us to understand how others perceive us. It helps us to face our behavior patterns and, if necessary, change them if they're causing difficulties in our work or personal relationships," Shwartz expounds. "Children with learning difficulties often have other issues to cope with and working with horses can enhance their self-esteem and coordination," she adds. Tresman agrees that this sort of activity boosts self-esteem. "This is a challenge which is not reliant on traditional learning. The children can succeed [at] something that they can`t do at school," she says. For adults, equine assisted learning can help explain why they miss the boat on career opportunities. "One manager was frustrated that he never passed interviews when seeking promotion," Shwartz relates. "Working with the horses, he discovered that he had problems [with] assertiveness. This helped him to change some of his behavior patterns in the workplace." Equine assisted psychotherapy takes the approach further, and requires the participation of a clinical psychologist or clinical social worker certified by EAGALA in addition to a horse specialist. Currently, only five such therapists are qualified in Israel. EAGALA's facilitator training is based on two modules, explains Cafrey, who trained at Shwartz's ranch. The first module is an intensive course without pre-requisites. But to receive EAGALA certification, students must complete the second module as well, which requires a background in education, psychology, or social work. In addition, an international ethics committee holds the right to disqualify trainees and practitioners, if necessary. Both Cafrey and Shwartz are dedicated to developing EAGALA's work in Israel, hoping to carry it into corporate management training while using the psychotherapy techniques to help children at risk and abuse victims. The horses, incidentally, do not need special training, but Cafrey explains that unusually aggressive animals are not used in the program. "Horses usually only act out of character if they have been abused or neglected," she adds. In fact, Dr. Marie Suthers-McCabe, associate professor of Human-Companion Animal Interaction at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, has researched the effect of equine therapy programs on the horses themselves. She found that the animals - like the human participants - benefited, and were less stressed at the end of the therapy sessions.

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