Psychology Students Use Experiential Therapy With Horses
Working in the field takes on a whole new meaning with a few Florida Tech psychology students.
Through Dr. Sandra Wise’s “Eye of a Horse” program at Forever Florida in St. Cloud, doctoral students have the opportunity to work with a variety of individuals, from humans to horses. This experiential therapy approach to psychology not only gets these students outside, but it teaches them a lot about communication, trust and themselves.
Wise, a licensed psychologist, started the “Eye of a Horse” program in 2002 with the help of Dean Van Camp, an experienced horse trainer.
“He’s a horse trainer who worked with horses having difficulty living in the world with humans,” Wise said. “I was working in the prisons trying to help folks who were having problems living in society with others. Dean taught me everything he knew about horses, and I taught him a lot about psychology.”
Their relationship with Florida Tech began with workshops for doctoral students in the clinical psychology program who wanted to hone their skills by working with the non-verbal side of therapy using horses. Then Wise invited veterans struggling with PTSD, at risk youth, young adults on the autism spectrum, those with spinal cord injuries and clients struggling with substance abuse.
Florida Tech students could volunteer their time to work with these clients, until the program became a practicum site in which they could earn credit toward their degree. That’s how Caroline Witek and Emily Burch, both third-year students in the clinical psychology doctoral program, got involved.
Experiential therapy by nature is experience
“Experiential therapy by nature is experience,” Witek said. “It’s therapy by doing, which is so different from traditional thought therapies. I think that’s why it’s a little bit of a secret because it’s hard to explain and talk about. You need to experience it for yourself.”
Psychology students accompany their clients throughout the property on the Crescent J Ranch at Forever Florida. They walk through the Boneyard, where they discuss the importance of the cycle of life and death. They head out into the fields, where they sit quietly and build trust with wild horses and their colts. They also work with horses in the corrals and training ring. All along the way, they build their situational awareness by observing the wildlife around them.
“You learn something about yourself by the response you get from the animal,” Wise said. “So many times in our culture, we talk about looking at animals. We go whale watching, bird watching, we go to the zoo to look at animals. We rarely take into account the fact that they are looking back at us, and that’s a very important piece. You can think of it this way – you really don’t know yourself until you’ve seen your reflection in an eye other than human.”