FARMINGTON -- The intuitive nature of horses, and their instinct to "mirror" what humans are feeling, is the principle behind offering equine assisted psychotherapy and learning to those struggling with mental or behavioral challenges.
That alternative psychotherapy was laid out on the dirt floor of the Legacy Events Center arena Thursday before 400 onlookers, as part of the 12th annual Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association Conference.
The conference, which began Wednesday and concludes Saturday, consists of related workshops at the Davis Conference Center in Layton, as well as two nonmounted horse demonstrations at the center arena.
The demonstrations reveal the "acute sensitivity" of horses as they run free and work with humans in the alternative experimental therapy EAGALA Model, said Hayley Sumner, corporate communications director and a certified member of EAGALA, a Santaquin-based association with 3,500 members worldwide.
"Sessions of nonmounted activities involving obstacles and props, and facilitated by certified equine specialists and mental health professionals, are increasingly being used in the treatment of veterans, at-risk youth, families and other groups, as an adjunct or alternative to talk therapy," Sumner said.
The demonstration model Thursday consisted of four horses and about the same number of volunteers, on-foot, working with horses and using props such as Hula Hoops, traffic cones and barrels.
Those dealing with mental or behavioral challenges work with horses and try to get the animals through or around the obstacles.
According to officials, it is unimportant whether the individual is successful in coaxing the horse through the obstacle -- what's more important is that they are able to work with the horse, in turn gaining insight in how to resolve their own challenges.
"Horses respond to nonverbal communications," said Lynn Thomas, co-founder and executive director of EAGALA, which was established in 1999.
Horses provide therapy because they are able to pick up without bias the nonverbal signals humans throw off, Thomas said.
"The horses respond to what we bring with us," said Lynn Moore, a Minnesota-state based licensed alcohol and drug counselor.
Horses respond by moving from or toward individuals, or by moving their head, Moore said. If a horse is moving away, an individual can let go of their stress, changing the way the horse responds, she said.
One conference attendee who benefited from equine assisted psychotherapy is Carissa McNamara, of Payson.
In 2005, she was involved in a traffic accident that left her with post-traumatic stress disorder and an inability to leave her home without experiencing anxiety, McNamara said.
A short time later, McNamara, a horse owner, turned to equine assisted therapy to resolve her PTSD. She said the therapy changed her life and resulted in her becoming an EAGALA board member.
The therapy also provides the horses with a second wind.
In partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, EAGALA provides a second career for horses retired from racing, Sumner said.
EAGALA was developed to address the need for resources, education and professionalism in the fields of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning. The nonprofit association has more than 300 social workers, educators, equine specialists, corporate leaders and psychiatrists.
Those interested in attending the EAGALA conference today or Saturday can call 801-372-4244.