Sierra Tucson and EAGALA: Making connection through horses

By Jessica Miceli, MAC, LSC, EAGALA Certified Professional

On January 19-21, 2017, Sierra Tucson will host the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association’s (EAGALA) “Training the Trainers” workshop. Founded in 1999, EAGALA is a nonprofit organization that has set the global standard in offering a fully developed, professionally endorsed treatment model for mental health professionals practicing equine-assisted psychotherapy. EAGALA has over 4,500 members in 50 countries (“The EAGALA Model” 2009-2010).

Since 1983, Sierra Tucson has been internationally renowned for its effective therapies, dedicated staff, and extraordinary setting. Sierra Tucson provides integrative treatment to identify and resolve underlying issues. This supportive path has led to recovery for over 30,000 individuals who have suffered from alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, anxiety, trauma, eating disorders, chronic pain, and other mental health disorders (Sierra Tucson 2016).

Sierra Tucson is one of the first facilities in the nation to use horses as therapeutic partners in residential treatment. Equine therapy at Sierra Tucson was founded by Barbara Rector, a pioneer in the field, and Wyatt Webb, who has written books such as “It’s Not About the Horse.” In 1981, before the adult unit opened in 1983, Sierra Tucson’s Integrated Riding Resource Program’s (STIRRUPS) purpose was to elevate the troubled adolescent’s self-esteem through therapeutic work with the horse and the horse experience.

Horses are large and powerful creatures. This creates a natural opportunity for some individuals to overcome fear and develop confidence. They are social animals, with defined roles within their herds. They respond with unique insight into exactly who we are in the moment. Because horses can read and respond to the nonverbal messages we are always sending, they begin to act in ways that feel familiar to other relationships or dynamics in our lives. The lesson is that by changing ourselves, the horses respond differently. They provide this immediate feedback to real changes that we make – not what we just talk about (“So Why Horses and No Other Animals?” 2009-2010).

Sierra Tucson’s equine services have evolved over the years to include EAGALA-based practices, and both entities share much of the same philosophies. Both models involve:

  • No riding or horsemanship
  • Client-centered and solution-oriented
  • Team approach (always two co-facilitators)
  • Horses are an integral part of the treatment team (they are our counselors!)

Working with horses on the ground enables clients to better perceive the horses’ actions and reactions as they work to process and solve their life challenges. Horses offer clients an understanding of how their processes and actions affect others and impact their lives (“The EAGALA Model” 2009-2010).

Additionally, Sierra Tucson and EAGALA see the clients as best at determining the kinds of life changes they need to make to improve their lives. The job of the staff is to engage the intuitive power of horses to help them understand their process and practice the changes they want to make in a safe, supportive setting (“The EAGALA Model” 2009-2010).

Sierra Tucson is hosting the “Train the Trainers” workshop January 19-21, 2017, because it allows for a unique exchange of ideas between the two pioneers in their respective fields. Sierra Tucson sees the value in paying it forward by providing a beautiful setting to a nonprofit organization that certifies equine therapists all over the world. Nestled in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, the breathtaking views, helpful staff, warm climate, and wide variety of horses make Sierra Tucson an ideal location.


Sierra Tucson. (2016)

The EAGALA Model. (2009-2010). Retrieved from