Contemporary feltmakers have long recognized not only a primal connection with natural fibers but also a multi-sensory experience involved in the felting process: smell/texture of dry wool, sensation of felting with soapy warm water, and the fulling process (throwing wet felt). This kind of sensory work has implications for self-soothing for all age groups, from simple felted balls to step-oriented layered pieces. The therapeutic benefits of feltmaking are beginning to emerge in occupational therapy and now in art therapy. Applicable to all ages, feltmaking is a non-toxic and safe process that only requires wool, water, and soap. Feltmaking can be done individually or within a group and is process oriented: involving repetitive compression and agitation to the wool, which moves the individual fibers together forming a felted surface. From an art therapist’s perspective, the tactile process of feltmaking addresses the Kinesthetic/Sensory (K/S) level of Lusebrink’s (1990) Expressive Therapies Continuum (ETC). Further, the neurological mechanisms of the haptic sense of feltmaking have the ability to stimulate emotion and memory; this positions feltmaking as a viable option when working with people with Alzheimer’s, brain damage, dementia, and developmental disabilities. Therapeutic experiences in feltmaking are emerging in geriatric and pediatric populations and in substance abuse counseling, centering on stress reduction, strengthening self-perception, and sensory engagement.
As an avid rider and a descendent of horse and mule trainers, I know first hand the healing power of a horse and herd behavior. However, my journey as an equine specialist, and now an equine-assisted psychotherapist, evolved from the expressive arts. This combination of equine and expressive arts is a healing art in itself culminating in a co- and self-regulatory sensorimotor practice, resulting in transformational meaning making experiences. My own drawing practice as child–literally on any surface–signaled to my artist, writer, and horse-riding grandmother that art would be a pathway to my career as an expressive arts therapist. What has unfolded in my practice, since 1997, is the integration of expressive arts and therapeutic riding for residential treatment centers in the form of process groups; the use of phototherapy techniques to create personal narratives from therapeutic riding/groundwork experiences with youth offenders, individuals diagnosed with TBI, sensory processing disorders, acute stress disorder, ASD, and PTSD. However, for me, equine-assisted expressive arts therapy as an embodied “felt sense” experience emerged from our collaborative programs that were “situated” in indigenous communities: this approach reaffirmed the healing aspects of “bottom up” interventions. As a result, sensorimotor exploration and hemispheric integration across the midline (bilateral stimulation) comprise the foci of the equine-assisted expressive arts therapy approach with respect to regulatory processes, for example, response artwork (painting, clay, nature art), mindfulness-based and bilateral movement, visual journaling exercises, fiber art (felting, weaving), and sound (humming, drumming, singing).
How exactly do we operationalize Equine-Assisted Expressive Arts Therapy?
Equine-Assisted Expressive Arts Therapy incorporates all five disciplines of the expressive arts (visual, dance/movement, music, drama/theater, and writing/poetry) with equine-assisted psychotherapy. This multimodal, sensorimotor-based approach interweaves the healing power of the expressive arts with established equine-assisted models to provide a dynamically oriented approach to therapy.