Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

Joe & Kelly Vitorino

According to the Kohala Youth Ranch website, “Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) incorporates horses as co-facilitators and guides in experiential activities to address a variety of social and emotional challenges.”



EAP is a powerful and effective therapy that promotes healing through both experience and discussion. It allows each participant to process feelings and behaviors with the guidance of a licensed therapist and an equine specialist.  It promotes trust, confidence, assertiveness, leadership, creative problem-solving, teamwork, personal responsibility and relationships, verbal and non-verbal communication. EAP helps participants learn healthy boundaries. Classes are held outdoors, alongside and within the horse herd. Results are immediate and easier to manifest than the lessons learned in a traditional office setting. EAP is NOT horseback riding, therapeutic riding, horsemanship or horse training. All horse activities at Kohala Youth Ranch are performed on the ground


About the Program

In collaboration with the North Kohala Community Resource Center, Kohala Youth Ranch began with the intent to provide free activities for local youth groups and at-risk youth in Hawaii County. The program grew to include activities for vacationing military personnel and their families. After learning about the large number of Veterans returning from conflict with PTSD, Kohala Youth Ranch and the PTSD Health & Research Center partnered to provide an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) program for Hawaii County Veterans. The goal is to provide coping skills to Hawaii County’s military men and women who have difficulty processing combat experiences and to assist in the reintegration back to family and civilian life.

The gentle Paso Fino horses at Kohala Youth Ranch serve as guides in the EAP program. Direct interaction with the horses using experiential or “hands on” activities address a variety of social and emotional challenges.  EAP can focus on many common issues such as depression, anxiety, anger, PTSD, poor self esteem, substance abuse and/or addiction, as well as relationship and communication problems.

During the EAP activities, many symbolic scenarios emerge that relate to common behavioral issues. The horses become mirrors into the soul of the participant. The various scenarios that emerge become metaphors to analyze and review as healthy or unhealthy behaviors. Participants get instant feedback and begin to discover solutions to their own problems.

Careful observation has shown that horses can be powerful messengers to people.  They live in the moment and are self-aware. They are honest and nonjudgmental. They are very social in nature and share many attributes of human social behavior. Because they are prey animals, they have a strong instinct for survival and they are finely tuned to their surroundings at all times. Many military personnel share the strong instinct for survival and the hypervigilence regarding their surroundings.  Horses see only the authentic, or what is truly happening in the inside of a person.

About the Instructors

As equine specialists, the Vitorinos have been actively attending courses and conferences around the country in the practice of equine therapies, and have certifications with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), the OK Corral Series with Greg Kersten, founder of equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning (EAP & EAL), Equine-Guided Education at Sky Horse Ranch (EGE), the Equine Experience at Hacienda Tres Aguilas, and the T-Touch Method.  The ranch has been the host site in Hawaii for several equine-assisted modality clinics with the hope of spreading the word to other practitioners in the state who wish to learn more about the benefits EAP and EAL.  Their motto is:

“Healing the young and young at heart through the heart and soul of the horse”

The PTSD Health & Research Center provides payment directly to the service provider for those therapies that aren’t covered by the VA health plan and/or private health insurance. This program is offered at no out-of-pocket cost to Hawaii County Veterans.

Criteria & Conditions

Who is Eligible

  • A referral specifically for EAP from your primary health care provider and/or mental health care provider.
  • A commitment to participate in one session per week for six weeks.
  • Veterans who have been diagnosed with combat related PTSD.

Those who have entered into our program must agree to the following conditions:

  • Deliver the VA referral from your physician to the service provider at your first session.
  • Agree and sign a Release, Waiver of Liability and Indemnity Agreement and a Consent Form for the PTSD Health & Research Center. (The service provider will supply the forms and they must be signed before your first session.)
  • Complete a medical history form and/or sign a waiver with each service provider as required.
  • Complete three (PCL-5) self assessment surveys and an entry, mid-point and exit survey. Paperwork will be supplied by the service provider.
    Provide feedback to the VA, the service provider and the PTSD Health & Research Center at the conclusion of the program.


Thank you for putting this on. It means the world. So many other Vets and their families could one day benefit from this powerful therapy.

Life is about relationships. The horses helped me learn.

My favorite part of the program was building new relationships with horses and new veterans.

The greatest benefit I experienced was finding peace when hanging out with 1200lb animals.



Please contact Paula Sanders at the VA Kona CBOC for the next available class.

Paula A. Sanders, PMH APRN
Contact information: VA Kona CBOC
 (808) 331-4528 Leave a message and we will call you back.
75-377 Hualalai Road Kailua-Kona, HI  96740


Please wear closed-toe shoes.
Hats and sunscreen are recommended.
Please arrive no more than 15 minutes before your scheduled session.
Only Veterans may attend the EAP program. Family and friends may wait in Kapa’au or Keokea Park.

Video and many photos provided by Paula Sanders

EAP Video