The Therapeutic Use of Horses as Adjunctive Experience to PACT Couple Therapy: Exploring Couples’ Capacity for Collaboration and Attunement

for therapists Jun 07, 2023

by Catherine Seidel, LMFT
PACT Level 3 Therapist

This paper presents the application of PACT couple therapy principles to a guided couple experience with horses. Four couples were given the same instructions and tasks in two-hour equine-assisted sessions. Several PACT exercises were applied verbatim. Observations and insights gained from the exercises were then applied to the couples’ interaction with the horse. For brevity I will describe a portion of the work with two couples.

Because horse brains have no prefrontal cortex, their behavioral responses reflect their level of interest or disinterest, stress, or attraction to human verbal and nonverbal behavior. Without the human capacity for executive function, a horse’s brain “allocates space to perception, fear, rapid movement and associative learning” (Jones 2020a).

Horses are prey animals that depend on flight as primary means for survival. When humans work with horses, the horse provides an exaggerated opportunity to see and work with verbal and nonverbal communication as pertains to safety. PACT addresses safety and security in couple relationships, ultimately teaching partners to lower ingrained defense responses and increase trust: each person regulating the nervous system of the other by use of skillful means. Using the horse as a “lab” in this therapeutic experiment, couples test their skills and experience the horse’s responses to their physical and emotional communication.

Without a prefrontal cortex a horse operates on survival instinct and emotion, with safety as primary motivation. The horse’s brain detects sights at the visual cortex, then sends the information to the motor cortex for immediate action. The human brain sends the same information to the prefrontal cortex first for evaluation before springing into flight (Jones 2020b). Horses in the wild, as well as in captivity, display deep bonding behaviors, clearly and regularly exhibiting positive and negative responses to each other and to humans. 

Horses give “functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion,” for example showing an increase in heart rate when exposed to angry human faces (Smith). Well-trained horses will often tolerate discomfort in interactions with humans. They will also reveal a range of emotions visible in their facial expressions, from distress to delight (Wathan 2015), especially when allowed to move at will. The horse’s responses, accurately interpreted, provide the couple instant feedback as to how they are perceived by the animal, and relates to how collaborative, friendly, and well-regulated the couple appears to the horse.

Human dyadic regulation of affect “involves the processing of emotional information communicated nonverbally” (Hill 2015). While the couple attempts to coordinate their actions and energies to communicate nonverbally with the horse, the practitioner/horse expert interprets, as needed, the horse’s responses to the couple. As the therapist tracks the couple’s capacity to collaborate and mutually regulate, the couple’s attunement deficits appear as therapeutic material. The horse reflexively illustrates the couple’s skills or deficiencies in sensitivity and attunement to the horse, and by extension possibly to each other.


Current dominant models of equine-assisted therapies operate primarily on the premise that a horse in a therapeutic context is a blank slate for a client’s projection. The horse’s behaviors are often interpreted in anthropomorphic terms unrelated to the interpretation of horse behavior as evolutionarily adaptation for an animal surviving in a herd on open plains. While the “horse as blank slate” method can prove useful and be safely practiced, it is a one-being psychology rather than a co-regulatory process between horse and humans. In this sense the very use of a horse as a horse in therapy is still novel. Unfortunately, there is little peer-reviewed research on equine therapy in general and even less on equine-assisted couples therapy.


Four couples were given the following information prior to our meeting: “The experience will be two hours long and will involve doing several scripted experiments with your partner, with and without a horse. Some of the experiences will involve spatial awareness, trust, collaboration, and safety. Please dress to be outside in weather with clothing and shoes that can get dirty.”

The experience used a horse, Lucky, whose character and disposition are appropriate for these specific exercises: he is well-trained and friendly with people but also independent-minded and skeptical. The experience utilized two spaces: a paddock (approximately 12’ x 20’) and a fenced arena (approximately 80’ in diameter). 

Each couple was given several horse cookies and a single dressage whip (a stiff whip about 36” long). They were instructed that the whip should be kept low and quiet and should not touch the horse but be used “as an extension of your arm.” At times they used a halter, a simple device consisting of a noseband and headband that buckles around the horse's head and allows the horse to be led via a lead rope. 

Simple instruction about the mechanics of each exercise was given at the start of each activity. The highest priority was given to the safety of the couple and the well-being of the horse, who was not to be stressed in any significant way.

At the conclusion of the exercises, the couple and therapist reviewed their experience and discussed the significance of the interactions and their correlation to the couple’s experience with each other.

Exercise 1A. Toward and Away (without the horse)

This PACT exercise relates to proximity, i.e. intrusion or abandonment as they pertain to early childhood attachment strategies that serve to regulate interpersonal stress and the need for safety and connection with caregivers. PACT principles suggest that these strategies are very much alive in adult relationships and that partners should know each other’s histories and needs in this regard. In our session the horse serves as surrogate for the practice of these attunement skills and mirrors their presence or lack thereof.

Exercise 1B. Catching

Participants were asked to catch and halter the horse in the paddock. Lucky is sensitive to intrusion and will not collaborate with humans easily prior to establishment of trust and coherence. The couple must work together and in a well-regulated state to be successful. 

Exercise 2. Connection, Beckoning, State Shifting.

A brief explanation was given to the couple about secure functioning and the ability to shift each other’s affective state. Minimal information was provided about how horses in a herd establish leadership and connection, suggesting how the couple might attempt to engage the horse by moving the horse quietly. 

Practice with the horse

Exercise 2A. Connection: The couple was asked to move Lucky backward 6 steps, forward 6 steps, then sideways 6 steps one way and then the other without a lead rope to rely on.

Exercise 2B. Beckoning: The couple was asked to entice the loose horse to follow them in the open ring without touching him and without a halter or lead rope. 

Exercise 2C. State Shifting: The couple was asked to convince Lucky to trot or canter without touching him. If they were successful, they were asked to make him stop.

Exercise 3. Co-regulation Meditation

The couple was asked to stand together, eye to eye and touching, observing each other closely. Co-regulation can be described as “the regulatory processes of affective synchrony that create states of positive arousal and of interactive repair that modulates negative arousal [and] are the fundamental building blocks of attachment and its associated emotions” (Schore 2005).

Practice with the horse: This experiment explores how the untethered horse responds to a couple as they stand quietly together in a co-regulating practice.


Couple 1: Married, hetero Caucasian couple from France. He is age 38, a physics professor, she is age 35, a physical therapist who also teaches martial arts. They have cursory experience with horses. He described a traumatic experience in which he was kicked by a horse in the face as a child. We discussed guidelines for keeping safe distance from the horse in motion, and I assured them that I would guide them to ensure safety.

Exercise 1A. Toward and Away. 

The couple began standing in opposite corners of the paddock. The woman approached her partner first, and she knew where each was comfortable, as well as specifically how to intrude upon him when asked to do so. Each settled easily after the intrusion because the other knew what intrusion meant to their partner and how to correct it. After the exercise the husband said he knew that his wife would feel very oppressed if he pressed down on her from above. She agreed. They displayed their theory of mind, acknowledging that their individual perceptions and the other’s were not the same, and that they must seek to understand their partner.

Exercise 1B. Catching

The couple was asked to catch and halter Lucky. As they approached, the horse faced them and stepped back defensively. They retreated immediately, reading Lucky’s response. The horse stayed facing them, engaged. They quietly strategized, speaking in low voices, moving slowly together. They made several failed attempts but observed Lucky’s cues and lowered the pressure immediately. The couple’s attempts improved as they learned to position themselves to relieve the horse’s stress. They whispered and strategized. She fed Lucky cookie crumbs, giving the horse reason to stay engaged. Eventually, he slid up the horse’s side and slipped the halter around his nose and over his head, completing the task quickly and quietly.

Exercise 2A. Connection

The couple was asked to move Lucky 6 steps back, then forward, and 6 steps to each side. They found forwards and backwards easy but sideways took more coordination. This horse is highly trained and sensitive to cues for movement at any angle. The couple had to coordinate to stop Lucky’s forward motion and engage both ends of the horse simultaneously to achieve a sideways approach. By expressly coordinating their movements, they were quickly successful. 

Exercise 2B. Beckoning

The couple was asked to get Lucky to follow them. With few words they moved as a team, one to the horse’s side and the other in front and managed to coax the horse to follow them a short distance. They gestured in a coordinated way with their arms, connected to their core, and the horse collaborated easily.

Exercise 2C. State Shifting

The couple was asked to get the horse to trot and canter. They made several attempts, each taking a turn and getting no response. But when they joined together, there was enough energy to convince Lucky to action. Once cantering, the couple was asked to stop the horse. Instinctively they stopped in place together. She cooed in a downward inflection, and the horse stopped abruptly.

Exercise 3. Co-regulation. 

The couple stood in the center of the arena following instructions for co-regulation while Lucky wandered freely. After approximately two minutes, the horse approached them and stood perpendicular to their bodies, touching one then the other gently with his nose, then lowering his head in relaxation.

Couple 2: Married hetero Caucasian couple. She is 56, COO of a non-profit, he is 55, owner of a tech company. He is self-proclaimed “on the spectrum” and “missing some parts that she has.”

Exercise 1A. Toward and Away

This couple looked comfortable together. However, when he was asked to intrude and then she was instructed to fix it rather than moving him away, she wiggled away from his grip, asking nothing of him. This later opened a topic about how she felt it her responsibility to change herself, without asking anything of him. This was discussed and noted.

Exercise 1B. Catching

The couple was asked to catch Lucky in the paddock. The missing parts began to show immediately: the two were laughing, chatty, and unaware that their volume and physical intensity was causing the horse to leave. Eventually, as they began to notice Lucky was backing away, they made a plan. They essentially cornered the horse, and I advised them to leave an open path for Lucky to escape for the sake of safety. They backed off and tried again, making enough disjointed attempts that Lucky turned his haunches to them and put his head in the corner. As they attempted to approach Lucky again, he rotated away, leaving them no option to approach. At this time, I noted to them that the horse had taken a defensive position and asked them to back away so we could move to the co-regulation exercise. 

Exercise 3. Co-regulation 

The couple was asked to stand close together in the center of the space, eye to eye, touching, observing each other closely. They were asked to think about each other and not about the horse. After several minutes the horse emerged from the corner enough to watch them. Subsequently he stepped toward them two steps. He then aligned his body in parallel with theirs in a companion position, the way horses who are allies stand side by side, relaxed. 

Exercise 2A. Connection

This couple was quite happy in their experimenting, yet somehow disjointed in their nonverbal behavior and often unaware of Lucky. However, because of Lucky’s reactions the couple realized they needed to move together and used observations from failed attempts to piece together a plan that worked. Moving the horse six steps backward, and then forward, came easily enough. But stepping sideways proved challenging and they had trouble coordinating their movements into one request. Eventually they succeeded in getting Lucky to take two to three vaguely lateral steps each way.

Exercise 2B. Beckoning

When asked to get the loose horse to follow them, the couple began to run around the arena together, laughing and calling him. To my surprise Lucky followed them for multiple cycles around the enclosure. This couple clearly had a great ability to play together, and the horse was attracted to this. The three played enthusiastically together. The couple agreed that play was indeed their strongest suit.

Exercise 2C. State Shifting

Asked to increase the horse’s speed, the couple had trouble coordinating their energies in a way Lucky could understand. They eventually reasoned their way to small success borrowing from their past positive experience, coordinating themselves to move together. Asked to stop the horse, they stopped moving together and said, “Whoa.” Lucky stopped immediately.


When departing, this woman (from couple #2) told me she really wanted to hug the horse and asked if she could do so. I said, “Yes, you may hug him, keeping in mind everything just learned.” She slowed herself, watched Lucky carefully, reached out with one arm to scratch him, quietly slid her other arm under his neck and scratched the other side too, and buried her face in his neck. She managed to negotiate a move that translated to a horse’s version of friendly grooming with her desire to be close to him. This was noted as an action which held two beings in mind. 

The horse clearly enjoyed couple #1, and his level of interest in them was unusual. Woman #1 proudly told me that strangers on the street often want to talk with her husband, and that they become more organized in his presence. Despite this pair’s lack of horse experience, they related with the horse more skillfully than many horse professionals because they were artful together in their co-regulation.

Attempting these exercises is dependent on having a horse that is both responsive and well known. This horse offered a clear reflection of each couple’s strengths and development areas in co-regulation. Couples became more coordinated over time as they began to observe the horse and, with help, contemplate the way he responded to them. As a therapeutic experience for couples, this small sample proved revealing, instructive, and joyful. All couples wrote reviews of what they had learned about themselves and their partners from their experiences. 


The work described here represents a small sample of possibilities for developing and practicing couple co-regulation with the help of a horse. The practices described here offers couples unique, immediate physical feedback about how they are experienced by a horse. Once given specific tasks, they learn that without collaboration – both as an energetic system (co-regulation) and in terms of physical planning and strategy – they will not be successful. 

In the future, expanding therapeutic studies with horses could be beneficial in other areas as well. In addition to working with these dynamics in the couple dyad, this approach could be useful in working with parents who seek to improve their attunement skills with their children. In these cases, the horse could serve as a stand-in for the child, who naturally responds to nonverbal advances and cues that often occur below the awareness of the parents as a system. These exercises with a horse could be developed to teach the couple about external regulation: the ability of the couple to positively affect the state of the child. 

Another example might be an expanded set of exercises that could be used if a couple has difficulty with self-activation as well as problems with listening and observing, timing, gesture, and tone. In these instances, the horse would provide the couple with direct feedback that could help increase their attunement and responding skills. This work could be used as a first session or as experiential work in the middle part of therapy when the issues of work have already been established. 

In the therapist role, I need make only small observations and interpretations regarding the process between humans and horses to assist couples to better realize their co-regulation possibility. The exercises themselves serve as therapeutic containers – discreet tasks that reveal each couple’s skills and deficits. Couples like the ones described improve organically through their observations of and experiences with the horse, which proves to be useful prompts for thoughtful experimentation and better attempts. 


Ham, T. M. (2013). Equine Assisted Couples Therapy: An Exploratory Study [unpublished master’s thesis]. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Hill, D. (2015). Affect Regulation Theory: A Clinical Model. W.W. Norton.

Jones, J. L. (2020). Horse Brain, Human Brain, The Neuroscience of Horsemanship (pp. 231-266). Trafalgar Square Books.

Schore, A. (2005, June). Attachment, affect regulation, and the developing right brain: linking developmental neuroscience to pediatrics. Pediatrics in Review, 26(6).

Smith, A. V., Proops, L.., Grounds, K., Wathan, J., & McComb, K. (2016, February). Functionally relevant responses to human facial   expression of emotion in the domestic horse. The Royal Society Publishing.

Wathan J., Burrows, A.M., Waller, B.M., & McComb, K. (2015). EquiFACS: The Equine Facial Action Coding System. PLoS ONE 10(8): e0131738. pmid:26244573.


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.