Twenty years ago, Gail Venecourt decided to leave her job at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) to pursue her true passion: working with horses. Venecourt, partnered with psychiatrist Karien Botha, is half of the equine assisted psychotherapy practice (EAP) called Earth Soul Connection, based in Paarl in the Western Cape.
Equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is a branch of therapy that involves connecting people with horses to help them work through emotional issues or trauma. At Earth Soul Connection, Venecourt and Botha mostly assist people with addiction rehabilitation and teenagers with emotional issues.
They started the practice about three years ago and met through Venecourt’s dressage school.
“I have a small livery yard, so there are 13 horses on my property, and I teach people to do dressage, which is a particular discipline of horse riding.
“[That’s] actually [how] I met Dr Karien Botha, a psychiatrist in Paarl. I started out giving her lessons in dressage and, because we got talking, she helped me get qualified with EPISA. And since I’ve been qualified, we‘ve been working together.”
EAPISA, or the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Institute of South Africa, certifies horse specialists and mental health professionals on the use of horses in psychotherapy. “We both have to have an understanding of how the issue of mental health and the horse behaviour fits together because whatever you’re doing with equine assisted psychotherapy, you’re working with horses.
But when you do the EAP, the people often have never ever touched a horse in their life before. So, you need to be very aware of what is going on all the time, not only to observe the horse’s behaviour, but to also observe the person so that you can keep it safe.”
Venecourt says that, the reason horses make such effective therapy animals, is because they are completely emotional beings. “It’s a very hard thing for people to actually get their head around. Horses communicate emotions, and like human beings, they are social creatures.
They’re communicating how they’re feeling and how they are perceiving everything in the environment all the time to the other horses with them. And they convey that message to human beings as well, if we know how to read the behaviours, or the body language that they’re communicating.”
Horses, Venecourt says, are highly receptive to human emotions and behaviours, partly because they are prey animals who need to be on high alert at all times for their survival. As a horse specialist working in an EAP practice, her job is to read the horse’s behaviours, and use those findings to help the patient interpret their emotional state.
“The person is immediately confronted with either their emotional state or a behaviour that they [exhibit], and in the moment, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t realize I did that’. The first time, they might not believe it, [nor] the second time. If it happens the third time, they [tend to be] like ‘OK, I get this’. They may not have been aware [of] what they’re doing, so [EAP] is a really good mirror to hold up to a person.”
Venecourt sat down with us to give some insight into the world of a horse specialist.
Can you tell us what a typical day looks like for you at Earth Soul Connection?
I would just arrange which horses we’re going to use, what time it’s going to be, and when I arrive at the facility, I make sure that the facility has everything that we need to do the EAP. Then, essentially [we] spend anything up to three hours with a group of people. [We] tell them what is EAP is about, which means it requires some public speaking skills. [You need] to have the confidence to stand and speak to people.
And, we have an indoor arena with a nice sand floor kitted out for the horses. Myself and Karien will generally stand on the outside and we send people into the arena with three or four horses, if it’s a large group. We then observe them, both the horses and the people. At some point, we will give them tasks to do with the horses.
Again, we observe, and as we observe, we will ask questions and listen to the feedback. So, it’s a very interactive process with the people more than the horses. Once we have completed the sesssion, obviously the horses have to be taken care of and put back on the normal feed and all of that. The horses are taken care of as horses generally are in a riding school or something of that nature.
What kind of characteristics should a horse specialist have to be successful?
First of all, you need to be very interested in horses and you need to be very interested in people. So you get a lot of people who really like horses, but they want to use it as an escape from people. If you want to do EAP, you have to really like horses and you have to really like people. That is because your job is ultimately to help the people.
Secondly, like many jobs, you have to be prepared to go the extra mile. There are lots of silly little things that one often has to do for horses, and if the session goes on half an hour longer than it should, you have to be prepared to just deal with that.
You [also] have to be calm. You have to be able to walk into the situation with horses and people where [the people] might be in a heightened emotional state , a state the horses are reflecting. The situation may not be that safe, so you need to be able to switch on calmness in yourself, like a literal switch.
You have to breathe, centre yourself, ground yourself and take yourself into that arena with the horses and people and radiate calm, and in doing that, almost wordlessly calm everything down and make it settled again. It’s a very strange thing to explain, but it’s a little bit like [how] you imagine a fireman going to put out a fire. If the fireman is not experienced in what they’re doing, and if they are not able to be calm, they cannot correctly direct people as to where to go, what to do, how to do it. If they get in a panic and they’re not able to control themselves, they are of no help to anyone else, and that’s pretty much part of my role as a horse specialist. [I have] to be able to be calming without words.
You mentioned that EAP is a small industry in South Africa. What are the barriers keeping the industry so small?
One of the biggest barriers to EAP becoming more popular is the cost of it. For people who have medical aid, for instance, the medical aid will pay for either psychiatric care or psychological care, but they don’t pay for the horse specialist.
Because you have to have two people doing it, and the horse specialist has to be paid over and above what medical aid would pay. And for many people, that just becomes just too expensive, or they see it as too expensive, especially if they don’t understand the benefits of EAP.
Obviously, you need to take in the cost of keeping the horses as well. At the moment, we use Karien Botha’s private horses, or we use my private horse. So, if you [add] the actual cost of looking after the horses and caring for them, it becomes prohibitively expensive. There are ways around that like maybe working together with a riding school and saying, well, ‘I want to use the horses for an hour or say 3 hours in the week.’ Then you don’t have the full cost of the horses on top of the cost of paying the professionals who are doing the EAP.