Healing with Magic

By Andrea Abad

He spent the weekend skirting the edges of the arena fence. Now, as we entered the arena, the black pony turned to face us. He looked intently at us with head raised, ears pricked forward. He took a few steps forward as if to say, “Me, me, pick me!”

I did. I moved toward the black pony. In that instant, he nonchalantly turned his rear to me. I thought, Oh my God, that’s her. That’s my daughter disconnecting from me. So began my personal experience with Equine-Assisted Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EA-EMDR). And yes, you will hear the end of this story . . . all in good time.

Developed in 1987 by Dr. Francine Shapiro, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is an evidenced-based treatment for trauma. It is recognized as a recommended treatment for trauma by numerous organizations worldwide, including the American Psychiatric Association (APA), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs.


EMDR theory is based on the Adaptive Information Processing Model – what one saw, felt, heard, smelled, tasted or believed about oneself, others or the world is “stuck” unprocessed in the nervous system in the precise way it was experienced. These unprocessed past experiences are triggered in the present as a collection of dysfunctional behaviors, thinking patterns and beliefs. Symptoms can manifest in the form of flashbacks, anxiety, depression, anger, fear, hyper-vigilance or body sensations.

In a three-pronged approach, EMDR processes past traumatic material, present triggers and anticipated future challenges. Utilizing bilateral stimulation through eye-movements or alternately tapping both sides of the body, the brain naturally rewires itself and processes the traumatic material it was unable to handle at the time of the event. As a result, the power and intensity of the event is minimized, as if “unplugged” – there is no longer an attached emotional charge.

Sarah Jenkins, MC, LPC, is the equine-assisted therapist who created EquiLateral™. Through her experience in both EMDR and Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), Sarah created the first EMDR protocol for integrating the two therapies. Utilizing this protocol, psychotherapists with certification in EquiLateral™ maintain integrity with the eight-phased EMDR therapy model as they integrate it with EAP.

Based on its success, Jenkins now offers EMDR International Association-approved workshops and a best practice training to share this innovative protocol with other therapists. In order to receive a certification in EquiLateral™, practitioners must have EMDR basic training and be a master’s level, independently licensed counselor or social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist. There are currently only about 20 certified facilitators in the United States.

This cutting-edge therapy is typically facilitated by a psychotherapist who focuses on the client and an Equine Specialist who provides feedback about the horse and its behavior.

In both group and individual EAP, horses teach individuals about themselves – define healthy relationships and identify dysfunctional patterns of thinking and behaving. This experiential therapy provides a safe environment in which inner healing is nurtured and optimal growth is encouraged.

EAP assists individuals in learning problem-solving skills, healthy risk-taking, communication and social skills. For the client, it promotes personal exploration and recognition of feelings, as well as providing solid clinical information for the therapist.

Horses are expert at confronting behaviors and attitudes because of their innate ability to observe and respond to nonverbal communication. The horse often becomes the object of a participant’s projected and unconscious fears or anxieties, which provides an opportunity to explore emotions in a controlled environment.

Participants walk away with new methods of managing frustration, challenges and fears. Other benefits often include: relationship-building skills; limit-setting and consequences; processing of grief and loss; the positive experience of pleasure, affection and appropriate touch; play and laughter; and anxiety reduction. The fact that EAP is facilitated outdoors adds enormously to the experience. Time spent in nature enhances one’s sense of well-being and increases the feeling of connection between an individual and the world.

So . . . back to my story. There I was in that arena in Oregon, completing the practicum part of EquiLateral™ training. It was my good fortune to be the client in the practice of Phase IV Desensitization, but I had agonized over just how vulnerable I was willing to be during the session.

With Sarah Jenkins as the therapist, I was much more comfortable taking the risk to apply this work to something significant. I decided to confront the day nineteen years ago when my then fifteen-year-old daughter went to live with her father because of my drinking.

This event was the foundation of a wall that went up between my daughter and me. It had left me feeling like the worst mother in the world. As the session progressed, that black pony began to turn toward me a few steps at a time. By the time the processing was complete, he was almost facing me again. I felt light, as if a weight had been lifted from my soul. The image I had focused on at the beginning of the session had simply no negative emotional charge anymore.

About two weeks after I completed the practicum, I spent five amazing days with my daughter. I was finally free of the shame, tight chest and stream of negative self-talk that typically characterized our visits. It was as if that traumatic event had happened to someone else. I am so grateful to have had this catharsis and to now be able to share my experience with my clients.

As I have worked with my clients, I have seen the power and successes of EA-EMDR; but personally experiencing the magic was a horse of a different color.

EA-EMDR is available in Northern Arizona from Andrea Abad, LPC of Equi-nections, PLLC and Bonnie Ebsen Jackson, ES, CC-CTA at T.H.E. Ranch in Skull Valley, Arizona. Send inquiries to equi.nections@gmail.com. Sarah Jenkins may be contacted at http://dragonflyinternational.com for information about therapy. For more information about EquiLateral™ certification visit http://eaemdr.com.

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