Fostering Authentic Connections with Horses through Equine-Facilitated Learning

By introducing Equine-Facilitated Learning into traditional riding programs, students can create a deeper relationship with their school horse, lease horse, or personal horse from the ground up.

One of our favorite parts of our Learning Levels journey is meeting like-minded instructors from all over the world and seeing how they creatively approach equine education. Thinking outside the box and considering different perspectives helps us grow as instructors and horsepeople. When we listen with an open mind, we can learn a lot from each other!

That’s why we’ve made it a goal to share our blog with other equine professionals. We hope these guest blogs will inspire new possibilities for taking your lesson business to the next level, while introducing you to some really great people who are bringing their own unique gifts to the horse industry.

Warmest of welcomes to our first guest, Diana Bezdedeanu!

About Diana: Diana Bezdedeanu is a Level 1 Equine-Facilitated Learning practitioner-in-training through The HERD Institute.  Her company, Horses Offering People Education (H.O.P.E.), was initially founded as a blog to share the many lessons learned along her first-time horse ownership journey. The blog quickly grew a large following, particularly among Off the Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) owners. Diana is the proud owner of a 3 year old OTTB, and can be found occasionally exercising her mom’s 16 year old OTTB therapy horse.

H.O.P.E. will begin to offer EFL sessions at a private New England boarding and lesson barn in Spring 2022. As someone who has both a visual and a hearing impairment, Diana is committed to providing whatever adaptations are necessary for her future clients’ success.

“So…what is Equine-Facilitated Learning?” This is a question I have been getting a lot recently, from family and friends alike. I am a Level 1 Equine-Facilitated Learning practitioner-in-training through The Human-Equine Relational Development (HERD) Institute.

Equine-Facilitated Learning, also known as EFL, stimulates meaningful interactions with horses to improve mental health and overall human wellness

Some of the concepts commonly addressed in EFL sessions include, but are not limited to: confidence boosting, stress reduction, trust, effective communication skills, developing social skills, and establishing healthy boundaries.

EFL services are not offered as a substitute for professional mental health care and are not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any mental health or medical conditions. EFL practitioners do not provide “equine therapy” — in fact, there really is no such thing as “equine therapy” — EFL is a subcategory of the larger Equine Assisted Services (EAS) industry.

Other subcategories include Therapeutic (Adaptive) Riding, Therapeutic Carriage Driving, Interactive Vaulting, Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP), and PT/OT/SLP incorporating the use of Hippotherapy into a patient’s overall plan of care. Each of these subcategories requires a specialized certification in order to practice.

One of the biggest surprises — and often the hardest selling point — of EFL programs is that most of the work is unmounted

EFL practitioners do not offer horseback riding lessons. Horses are seen as an equal partner in fostering authentic connections, rather than a tool whose only job is to be ridden.

Another way in which EFL sessions differ from traditional horseback riding lessons is that they do not always include a concrete activity or lesson plan. Rather, they consist of observation of horses in their natural habitat, groundwork, grooming, or liberty work. Because their limbic system is larger than ours, horses are more sensitive to emotional energy and respond to what we are putting out, whether we are aware of it or not.

student washes pony's face during equine-facilitated learning sesson

As practitioners, our job is to put aside everything we know about horses and allow the participant to draw their own conclusions as to what they observe and experience. In EFL, there is no “right” or “wrong” answer; it is all about personal interpretations.

Though EFL programs can serve equestrians, it is fairly common for participants to have little to no horse experience prior to their first session

Some may even be afraid of horses and their grandiose statue, but willing to attempt to establish a connection from the ground.

Anyone can participate in EFL sessions — there is no age, gender, race, or disability discrimination. A mental health diagnosis is not required in order to participate in EFL sessions. Many programs cater to a “target audience” — for example, a veterans-only program, or a teen program.

equine-facilitated learning session with child and miniature horse

Some participants seek out EFL programs simply because traditional “talk therapy” has proven to be ineffective, and they are eager to learn new coping mechanisms in an untraditional manner.

The horses may be equally diverse. Any breed, from Shetland Pony to Belgian Draft, can be part of an EFL session. Many EFL programs incorporate rescue horses who have experienced past trauma or older horses that might be considered less suitable for a traditional riding lesson setting.

What is important to consider is the objectives for the specific individual or group session. Does the individual have a fear of horses? Then, perhaps it is best to start off with a miniature horse or donkey, rather than the largest member of the herd. Will the session involve grooming? If so, practitioners should choose a horse that can tolerate touch all over their body.

How can you get started with Equine-Facilitated Learning?

As a lifelong horse lover, I knew I wanted to combine my passion for horses in a way that could help others. I wasn’t interested in becoming a traditional riding instructor, as I had a lot of work to do on my own riding after a significant amount of time off. I did have extensive prior experience volunteering for several local therapeutic riding programs, as well as assisting in PT and OT sessions incorporating hippotherapy into a patient’s treatment strategy.

However, in the Fall of 2020, I shadowed a couple of EFL sessions and instantly knew that was the career path I wanted to pursue.

What drew me in was the diversity of each session and the warm, happy feeling I had inside despite the chilly New England weather. Horses have always been therapeutic for me; not just through riding, but simply being present around them. Now, I have the opportunity to pass that sentiment onto others.

equine-facilitated learning instructor hugs thoroughbred horse

I chose to pursue my EFL certification through The HERD Institute. They are dedicated to creating a diverse, equal, and inclusive environment for those seeking a career in Equine-Facilitated Learning or Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy.

The certification process for EFL includes two online modules and a three-day in-person module at one of the designated certifying locations. While there are other EFL certification organizations out there, I am proud to be a part of the HERD and would highly recommend the program to others seeking a career in this industry.

In the simplest terms, Equine-Facilitated Learning is all about relationships — and the relationship between horse and human extends far beyond the saddle

For a long time, traditional riding programs have been focused primarily on a student’s success through the advancement of walk, trot/jog, canter/lope, and jump, with an emphasis on riding and preparing for the next show. By introducing EFL into traditional riding programs, students can create a deeper relationship with their school horse, lease horse, or personal horse from the ground up.

After all, horses have so much more to offer us than just a ride!

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We’ve been blessed with many talented photographers over the years: students who voluntarily stood in sweltering/ freezing arenas, capturing lifelong memories of lessons, camps and shows. We’re grateful to all of them!

One former student, Delaney Witbrod, is now a professional photographer with a gift for animal portraits – see more of her fine work here. We’re also grateful for photos of Western riding donated by LLPro instructors – particularly Bit of Pleasure Horse School and Joyful Hearts Photography!

You’ll find illustrations throughout our online courses and printed materials graciously donated by our friend Rhonda Hagy. Evan Surrusco contributes additional illustrations and handles most of our photo processing. Contact us for information about their work.

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