The word experiential means “involving or based on experience.” This means when you process an event, emotion, or thought aloud in a paddock with a horse, you are in an act of “doing,” all while building new experiences. In this treatment setting, there is an added layer of here-and-now experience to your processing, which may help develop greater insight, may introduce new neural pathways, and may improve capacity to make meaning from such experiences due to the novel environment.
The horse is there not only to bear witness to your journey, but to join your process of “doing.” Experiential work helps make those tricky, intangible experiences we try to sort through in our minds more tangible by using visuals, physical proximity, and interactions with the horse and therapist. Experiential processes may include touching, grooming, leading, or being on a horse’s back. We might use objects such as cones, poles, and visual cards as metaphors and you are invited to take creative liberty in making what once felt intangible now more tangible to you and your family members as you engage in the experiential process. Experiential work often includes movement, structured and unstructured activities, and taking on new roles, all of which can shed light on your thought processes, feelings, regulation strategies, and ways you make meaning in the world around you.
“Soma” means body. Somatic work emphasizes awareness of your own body, other bodies, and the horse’s body while in process. Greater somatic awareness is often correlated to better mental health and the ability to regulate your feelings in a calmer, more mindful way. When working beside a horse, movement, matching their gait, and other physical activities can engage your body in ways that traditional talk therapy may not.
When we add a horse to the equation, we have a tendency to anthropomorphize (put human qualities onto them). This is a natural thing humans do. Some of the first observations you have might be, “They seem so relaxed,” or “Look at how excited they are!” All of our experiences in relationships are colored like a tint on sunglasses, and our lenses are uniquely colored by our expectations, experiences, and patterns of relating to others.
For instance, a teen struggling to make friends at school may fear a horse would reject them based on their relational experience. However, horses are unpredictable and are a different social species than us. This allows for us to process more deeply in the moment as relational experiences — and opportunities — come up. As a bonus, horses view us through their own relational lenses that are specific to how their brains and species operate. This opens the door for new relational experiences with a non-human animal, who can offer us feedback and new ways to form relationships in a safe, non-judgmental environment.