Helping Horses Overcome Phobias and Fears Using Tellington Method and EFT

originally published in TTeam Connections Journal

As a Tellington Method practitioner, I use the Labyrinth exercise with nearly every horse I work with. While I use it to help a variety of problems, I have found it most helpful for horses who are frightened and reactive. I have always wondered why the Labyrinth works so well. Recently, I have been studying the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and have noticed some correlations between releasing trauma in people and the Tellington Method work with horses.

The Emotional Freedom Technique

EFT, also known as tapping, is a method of tapping on acupressure points on the body while talking about an issue to release the emotional charge. It was developed by psychiatrist Roger Callahan to help a patient with severe phobias, and has become a tool many therapists, counselors and lay people use. It has been shown to help people suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, addiction, and many more serious emotional challenges.  

One of the techniques of EFT, The 9 Gamut Procedure, was developed by EFT pioneer Gary Craig. It involves two basic components – the stimulation of the Gamut point by tapping, and movements designed to bilaterally stimulate the brain. This procedure bridges EFT with another therapeutic method, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). 

EMDR was first developed by psychologist Francine Shapiro, Ph.D., of the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, CA. While on a walk in a park, she discovered she was unable to maintain her focus on painful memories while walking and scanning her eyes back and forth looking at stones along the path. With this inspiration, she developed the technique of maintaining attention on a traumatic event while deliberately moving the eyes rapidly from side to side. The therapist guides the patient through the troubling memory while instructing him to watch her hand, or an object such as a pen, back and forth across their field of vision.

Normal daily experiences are filtered through the brain quite differently than traumatic experiences. Sensory input is initially filtered through the amygdala, which checks it for emotional content. If the information is neutral, it then goes to the hippocampus for processing, then to the left hemisphere for storing in memory. However, if the information is traumatic, it is not processed but is instead stored in the central nervous system in the right hemisphere of the brain. These unprocessed memories are stuck and can be re-triggered at any time, feeling, to the person experiencing the memories as if they are happening in the present moment. These distressing memories can cause flashbacks in those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).The process of EMDR (or other bilateral stimulation of the brain) allows the memories to be processed, and permits learning to take place so new responses to stimulus can occur.

The 9 Gamut Procedure

In the 9 Gamut Procedure, the client is guided to replay in his mind the troubling memory while tapping the Gamut point and bilaterally stimulating the brain by moving the eyes, humming and counting. This procedure allows the processing of the stored traumatic memory.

The Points

The Gamut point is the third point on the Triple Heater channel (TH 3). The Triple Heater channel runs from the center of the coronet band on the front leg, up the front of the cannon bone, crosses to the side of the forearm and up the shoulder and neck, ending after wrapping around the base of the ear. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), points on this channel are used to clear heat and inflammation, which includes overactivity of the mind and emotions. Some sources feel this channel is responsible for turning off the fight-or-flight response.  

On a human the Gamut point is on the back of the hand, just above the knuckle between the pinky and ring finger. In the horse, it is located on the front of the foreleg, just above the pastern joint, on the cannon bone. This particular point can help the body come out of a stress reaction, and is used routinely by EFT practitioners to help people get through stressful events and to clear traumas.

In EFT the points are tapped lightly with the fingertips, but this may not be practical or safe when working with horses. You may have to discover what the horse will enjoy or tolerate, and try a few different methods. Simply stroking the wand firmly over the knee, down the front of the cannon to the coronet band may provide the needed stimulation. If the horse is calm, you may try gently tapping the button end of the wand on this point.

The other point used in this procedure in humans is termed the Under Arm point, which is under the arm, roughly on the area where the bra strap lies. The TCM designation for this point is Spleen 21 (SP 21), and in the horse it is midway back on the ribcage, above the level of the shoulder joint. The specific point location varies from horse to horse, so I stimulate this point by using Abalone TTouches and work an area roughly the size of a dinner plate.

The Movements

The movements used in the 9 Gamut Procedure are: looking down hard to the right, looking down hard to the left, rolling the eyes in a circle in one direction, rolling the eyes in the other direction, humming, counting and humming again. Obviously, we will need to modify these somewhat, as I have not yet learned how to encourage a horse to hum! These actions bilaterally stimulate the brain, but there are also other methods. Researchers have used clicks delivered to the participant via stereo headphones and touch stimulation on alternate sides of the body. 

Eye Movement

The eye movements in the procedure are a natural part of Labyrinth work. Make sure to introduce your horse to the ground poles before you enter by pointing them out with a wand and tapping on them to be sure your horse is seeing them. The process of walking in the Labyrinth encourages the horse to focus downward in both directions as he navigates the poles.  

The eye rolling segment of the Gamut Procedure is one that may be replicated by using the Peacock movement with the wand. With a highly reactive horse I would be very careful, and be sure that the horse does not find this movement threatening. Due to the differences in anatomy and vision between the human and horse, more research would need to be done to see how this eye rolling movement could be replicated, if indeed it is useful for the horse. Decades of Labyrinth work with fearful horses may indicate the naturally occurring eye movements of the Labyrinth exercise are enough, so additional eye rolling may not be necessary.

Tactile and Auditory Cues

We can use the wand and stroke the horse on both sides of the body. Standing on one side of the horse, I stroke all four legs, the chest and both sides of the shoulders. If I am working with a partner in Homing Pigeon, she can then stroke the horse with her wand from the other side. The use of the Body Wrap will also provide bilateral tactile stimulation, especially as the horse moves his body through the labyrinth.

We can use our voices to give cues in the Labyrinth. By trading leading roles and asking the horse to listen for our cues from both sides we can mimic the bi-aural stereo clicks.

Applying the Method

To use this method with a horse with a particular fear, such as a fear of umbrellas, I would begin by introducing the horse to the basic Labyrinth exercise. After he has learned to work in the Labyrinth, you can begin introducing the frightening element, in this case the umbrella, slowly. Avoid frightening the horse with the object and keep it far enough away so he can see it but not feel threatened. As you work through the process he will become more comfortable with the object and you can bring it closer.

Apply the various elements of the procedure while working in the Labyrinth. How many of the elements you can apply at a time will depend on the ability of the horse to be calm and stand still. With a nervous horse you may have only a moment or two of halt time in the Labyrinth exercise to stroke the forelegs with the wand. On the next halt you may do some Abalone TTouches on his side. As you lead him through the Labyrinth initially, be sure to use your wand in the Elegant Elephant position so he will focus downward and follow the button end through the pattern. Once he understands the pattern and watches the poles himself, you may wish to step back to the Homing Pigeon position. If you have a partner to work with you, be sure to take advantage of the bilateral brain stimulation and have her alternate giving leading cues.

While there is much more to learn about applying these methods in horses, I think there is great promise to help horses with deep-seated fears. The Labyrinth, and other Tellington Method techniques have been helping horses for many years. Adding a few additional concepts and techniques may provide greater and more targeted results. I hope you try these methods, and share your results.