EAP for ADD (Part 1): What Is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?

Living with ADD/ADHD can be extremely difficult.

People with ADD/ADHD often do not have a self-monitoring “filter” that allows them to think about how what they say will be received before they utter it. As a result, individuals with ADD/ADHD often hear a great deal of criticism, such as, “stop interrupting,” “be quiet,” and “can’t you think before you speak?”

This frequent criticism from others tends to get “stuck” in the brain, creating an endless loop of critical thoughts that end up negatively affecting self-esteem.

Traditional talk therapy tries to address this low self-esteem by asking patients to monitor their self-talk. People living with ADD/ADHD often have difficulty observing and then interpreting the social cues they get from others. Their brains are just not wired to do so.

Thus, they are often blindsided when others become offended at something they have said or done. They often do not have a self-monitoring “filter” that lets them think about how a statement will be received before uttering it. So, how do you teach someone without a “filter” to self-monitor and be less impulsive?

One tool we use at Therapeutic Riding of Tuscaloosa is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).

EAP is 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.

EAP is 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.

Horses, as herd animals, communicate primarily through body language and therefore react to our body language. This provides powerful and immediate feedback to participants on what they are communicating non-verbally. They learn that if they want to change the horse’s behavior, they first must change their own feelings, actions, and thoughts.

Horses are quite sensitive to moods. They can typically tell if the participant is upset, angry, or happy and react predictably to the moods of the participant. By reading the horse’s behavioral cues, the therapist can often provide immediate and valuable feedback to the client about their own nonverbal cues and make great strides in helping participants change their own presentation.

Riders find out that if they want to change the horse’s behavior, they have to change their own behaviors, thoughts and feelings. It is powerful because it is more than just talking; it is doing.

For clients with mental or social disabilities, the horse serves as a non-judgmental confidant and a trusted friend. The interaction between client and their horse becomes the platform for therapists to help them deal with learning disabilities, grief, anxiety and more.

Teens learn to trust their own judgment and turn away from inappropriate peer pressure.

Middle school children learn to stand up to bullying and be confident in their own abilities.

Elementary school children receive valuable early interventions to help them deal with the challenges they may face from ADD, ADHD and various learning disabilities.

EAP reorganizes the ADHD brain.

The symptoms of ADHD and child traumatic stress overlap. Often, individuals with ADD/ADHD report feeling “bullied” by unwitting teachers, classmates, and parents of friends. This results in a trauma response which promotes dysregulation of emotions.

Thus, those with ADD/ADHD often develop a concomitant anxiety or panic disorder. In their efforts to self-monitor and self-regulate, these individual often develop a hyper awareness of their surroundings, which contributes to a sense of anxiety and panic.

The forward lateral motion of the horse stimulates the brain to change its firing patterns. It stimulates the neocortex, specifically the frontal lobe, allowing it to guide and override the lower regions of the brain where the anxiety is produced. This results in less aggression, fidgeting, forgetfulness and anxiety.

See our next article, “EAP for ADD Part 2,” for more information.