Last week I attended Part One of the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) certification training. EAGALA is a form of equine assisted therapy rooted in working with clients on the ground, utilizing clean language as means of eliminating any therapist bias, and the use of metaphors as vehicles to capture and describe the client experience. EAGALA therapists function in concert with the horses in the arena, trust in the process, and have a fundamental understanding that the important work being done is in the head and heart of the client. Assuming certification is in hand, EAGALA learning and therapy sessions are reliant on the presence of at least one living horse.
So what is an educator of educators doing spending the week in a horse arena at an EAGALA training? The short answer is my belief there are strong parallels between what happens in the arena and what happens in the classroom. The use of clean language, the examination of our own congruence between our beliefs and actions, the importance of trusting the client/student to own the therapy/learning, and the direct experiential anchor of the activity are all conceptual connections we might apply as teachers to our classrooms. Over a series of posts, I hope to explore these parallels.
Talking through the horse
The EAGALA equine therapy model is experiential and solution focused, making it distinct from more conventional models of talk therapy. EAP (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy) has been found to frequently result in quicker resolution of underlying issues for a client. Clients gain insight through the interactions they have with the horses and the analysis following their experiences. EAP seeks the use of metaphor as a way of clients reflecting on commonalities between the experience and conditions they find themselves in life. Following an activity, the mental health professional might ask the client what they noticed about the horses followed up by additional questions of clarification. The client will often follow with a description of how what they observed was like some aspect of the issue they were working on. The ability to observe and reflect on these issues in this way points the way to solution. Talking through the horse allows the therapist to guide the client in holding up issues around their goals in an objective manner with defensiveness minimized.
I spent nine years as a curriculum coordinator at Crossroads Elementary School – a science magnet in the urban core of Saint Paul, MN. In this role I carried duties similar to that of an assistant principal – notably responding to disciplinary issues that arose within the school. A not uncommon experience may help illustrate this experience. The story that follows is a blending of many encounters with students: any connections with a student in particular are only coincidental.
Tom, a second grader, has a history of impulsive behavior including physical conflict with other students. One October afternoon, Tom was referred to the office for punching another student. As I approached him to talk about what happened, Tom’s body language made it clear that he thought he was an innocent in this account.
“Tom, did you hit Henry?” I asked.
“No!” he replied emphatically.
This was not a productive time to ask why he did it – perhaps why is never an effective way to begin a conversation like this. It was clear this was not a direction that would find resolution for Tom or the many students like Tom. So I utilized another approach…
Gently lifting up and holding Tom’s hand, I asked, “Did this hand hit Henry?”
“Let’s talk about hands … What do we use our hands for? … How should we treat our hands? … What might you do with your hand next time you are angry?”
We had a productive solution-oriented conversation. Talking through the hands allowed Tom to separate feelings of judgment of him as a person from the act of hitting. He could talk objectively about what his hands were doing without Tom feeling a need to defend himself. This approach frequently allowed me to more effectively problem solve with many students and get them back to the classroom ready to engage in learning.
In the next few posts I hope to go further in examining these connections between the EAGALA model and what we do in the classroom.