Equine-Assisted Therapy: An Interview With Prof Dr Andreas Liefooghe

We had the pleasure of speaking with Prof Dr Andreas Liefooghe, a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, a Practitioner Psychologist with the Health and Care Professions Council, and a Registered Psychotherapist with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

Dr Andreas Liefooghe is the founder of Operation Centaur, the UK’s leading horse therapy centre based in Hampton Court and Richmond Park, which has been helping people cope with various mental health issues for over a decade. In this interview, we delve into Dr Andreas Liefooghe‘s background, his passion for horses, and the amazing benefits of equine-assisted therapy.

We also discuss his latest venture, Retreat and Conquer, which offers overseas retreats in some of the most remote locations in the world, providing a safe and immersive environment for people to discover vulnerability and connection.

Dr Andreas Liefooghe’s interest in horses dates back to his childhood in rural Flanders, where he grew up surrounded by farm horses. He began riding at the age of four and competing in show jumping from the age of 12.

After completing multiple qualifications in psychology and psychotherapy, Dr Andreas Liefooghe discovered the potential of equine-assisted therapy while working with Starr Lee Heady, a pioneer in the field who had done incredible work with Army Personnel diagnosed with severe PTSD. This led to the conception of Operation Centaur, which has helped numerous patients, including teenagers with eating disorders and selectively mute individuals.

Dr Andreas Liefooghe’s latest venture, Retreat and Conquer, offers overseas retreats in some of the most remote locations in the world, including Nihi, the private island of Mustique, Arabia, and Africa. The retreats aim to provide a safe and immersive environment for people to discover vulnerability and connection, with a focus on helping individuals make sense of the multiple complex relationships in their lives, make better decisions, and better understand themselves.

Equine-Assisted Therapy: An Interview With Prof Dr Andreas Liefooghe

The herds of horses at these locations have been carefully selected and curated for their emotional availability, as different horses take to therapy in different ways. The aim of the retreats is not just to provide a retreat, but to help individuals conquer their issues and take what they have learned back home with them.

We recently sat down with Prof Dr Andreas Liefooghe to speak about this vital work and everything that goes into this groundbreakingly exceptional therapy

When did your passion for horses first begin?

Horses were the first thing I remember from my childhood –  my parents tell me the first word I said was ‘horse’, to their great disappointment.    I grew up in rural Flanders, I remember the farm horses coming through with bells on their harness, and I was hooked.  I rode from four years old and competed in show jumping from the age of 12 and then spent all my teens jumping horses, taking a break when I went to university.

What is your background in therapy?

At University I completed my first degree in Psychology and then went on to study for a master’s and a PhD in Psychology – in total I have about six qualifications in Psychology and Psychotherapy.  Studying psychology gives you a robust grounding in how research and evidence work, whereas psychotherapy training gives you an understanding of human conditions and their models of change.

When did you decide to link horses with the therapy work and for what reason?

My interest was initially sparked through the wave of natural horsemanship in the late 90s.

People used to talk about “learning to ride a horse” in the way that you would learn to ride a bicycle – natural horsemanship brought a whole new meaning to the idea of the horse as a partner and a coach.  I was very sceptical at first, however.  A lot of the writing coming out of the US was too out there for me, and I nearly moved on – until I met Starr Lee Heady from Montana, a pioneer by birth and by nature. 

She did some incredible work with Army Personnel diagnosed with severe PTSD.  Working with her made me see the potential of working in therapy beyond language – and that’s how Operation Centaur was conceived.

Equine-Assisted Therapy: An Interview With Prof Dr Andreas Liefooghe

Can you give us a couple of case studies of how equine-assisted therapy has benefitted them?

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a technique, a method – like how art therapists use paint in their therapy, except, of course, we work with sentient beings. The horses are there to unlock something that traditional talking therapy has been unable to dislodge; for example, working with teenagers with eating disorders who don’t trust adults (usually because they are forced into treatment) we have found success working with horses as they like talking to the horses and telling them things they haven’t told anyone before. Sometimes it’s easier to trust a horse and their handler rather than the medics.

Horses are like mirrors so people start to see their own behaviour in the horse as the session progresses; so for example if a horse walks away from you and you feel rejected how does that feel? Is this something deeper rooted?  Can we contemplate that the walking away could be an invitation to follow?  Working in the here and now, experiencing things.  That’s how EAP works.

We have also had amazing breakthroughs in our time, such as a selectively mute girl that hadn’t talked for over 18 months began talking to the horse after four sessions.

Do you take private as well as doctor referrals?

A lot of our patients are referred by GPs/NHS or specialists and the specialist mental health hospitals also refer them.  We also accept self-referrals.

Who are the new London Day clinics aimed at?

Based in Richmond Park these 8-12 week courses are very much focused on providing a bridge for people who perhaps have spent some time as an inpatient and feel they are well enough to go home but could do with some structure to the other groups who feel that 50 minutes in “traditional therapy” is not enough for them.

With Equine Assisted Psychotherapy we are outside in nature – there is a movement for the whole time that people are with us. We work with equine mindfulness which gives people a sense of space and then move on to equine-assisted psychotherapy; we then analyse these sessions in the small group – what did we learn and how can we then integrate this into day-to-day life?

Finally, the day ends with psychological education which is all about the tools – for example, we have dealt with the loss today – how can we learn from how we process loss today and how do we take that back into our lives and families etc. 

Equine-Assisted Therapy: An Interview With Prof Dr Andreas Liefooghe

We love the sound of the new overseas retreats. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

The whole psychotherapy landscape is shifting, especially because of the pandemic where lots of therapy turned to Zoom and online. Although this wasn’t ideal, it did make us re-evaluate how our therapists work.

Technology is now taking over – various apps replace some things, but they can’t take you away from your day-to-day life and allow you to address the bigger problems and that’s where Retreat and Conquer come in www.retreatandconquer.com as it’s not just a retreat that is the most important factor here, it’s the conquering bit that’s important – the bit you take home.

Working out not just with what people bring to the therapy but working through it, unpacking some of the complexities that people have brought, and horses are incredible in this work as they do in therapy what they have always done – speed things up.  We don’t have to rely on language here, you are in it and doing it and then finally there is a lightbulb moment where it all slots into place.

The three pillars of Retreat and Conquer are these:  how can I make sense of the multiple complex relationships in my life; How can I make better decisions; and lastly how can I better make sense of myself?

Our team have carefully selected and curated some of the most incredible places in the world that include herds of horses that live as naturally as possible; horses that are emotionally available which is incredibly important as after two decades we have found that different horses take to therapy in different ways and not just any horse will work.

NIHI SUMBA, East of Java, is one of our favourite places in the world to do this – horses work as a herd in a semi-feral way and when you insert people into the herd you very quickly create a mixed human and equine herd which is absolutely the best way to work in equine assisted therapy.  It changes people’s lives.

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