line decor
line decor

What is Person-Centered Counseling?

Horse Psychology, My Career, and Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered Theory

Chera and horse-client "Cobi"

Horse-client "Cobi" and me at 10 sessions. Cobi was an abused show horse who did not trust humans and was difficult to ride. His human brought him to me after sustaining broken ribs when thrown from Cobi's back. I worked with Cobi and his human to restore thier confidence together.

The main focus of Carl Rogers’ theory of Person-Centered Therapy is congruence, encouraging both therapists and clients to fully experience their feelings as they surface within the moment. In fact, to the dismay of many inexperienced therapists, the Person-Centered Model is more about who the counselor is than what the counselor does (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 201). According to Rogers, the role of the therapist is to find a delicate balance between empathizing and directing, a way of being with clients that provides a gentle, compassionate push toward self actualization and congruence while simultaneously allowing clients to lead the journey wherever it is they need to go (wherever they happen to go emotionally from moment to moment). Therapists are encouraged to be truly present with their clients as fellow human beings, creating a horizontal relationship instead of looking down upon them as sickly patients (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 192).

Rogers’ model of Person-Centered Therapy resembles most closely the combination of spirit and logic I have come to believe is necessary to create a true connection between therapist and client, with “spirit” referring to the compassionate belief that no living being is innately bad and “logic” referring to the duty we have as service providers to constantly educate ourselves.Even before studying Rogers’ model, I had come to the conclusion that we must explore our beliefs and test them for cogency and effectiveness. When I say “come to believe” and “come to the conclusion that,” I speak not merely of my brief exposure to counseling theories as a graduate student, but also of my 38 years of experience as a human being and 25 years of experience as one who domesticates feral and rehabilitates domestic horses with unwanted behaviors. I am looking at Rogers’ theory from both sides of the experiential timeline: looking backward, I see it as confirmation that I have been on the right track, and looking forward, I see it as a reputable foundation upon which to construct the ideologies of my career as a therapist.

The main construct of the Person-Centered Theory argues that anxiety is produced when we are not congruent, when we behave in ways that will please others instead of behaving in ways that will please ourselves. This construct is at the heart of all interventions for this model and, interestingly, played a large role in my work with horses over the years. (This is not to say that any response from a human or horse can ever be anything but genuine, rather the motives of the behaviors were more heavily influenced from things or beings outside of the individual than feelings from within.) For example, clients often brought horses to me with what they referred to as “behavior problems” or “acts of disobedience,” but after working with the horses a short time, I realized they were experiencing and reacting to the anxiety they felt as a result of the pressure their humans had placed upon them to perform. It was my opinion that these horses were over-achievers, certainly not problem horses! Contrary to the modus operandi of the horse industry and by intuition alone, I learned that my job was not to teach the horse how to do horse things, such as walking, trotting, or cantering, but to teach it to talk to me, which meant I had to convince it that I would listen. To do that, I had to become the student of the horse, not the trainer, a perspective similar to Rogers’ in that he believed thoroughly in the value of studying the phenomenological experiences of his clients. Just as I was not the horse expert to the horse, Rogers was not the client expert to the client.

Another similarity I see between my thoughts about working with horses and Rogers’ model is the intervention of immediacy. I noticed there was a big difference between communicating with horses and communicating with people: horses live in the moment. They don’t talk about the future or the past. They don’t lie, brag about their accomplishments, or worry about next week. They only know what is happening in the now, and the more I can get myself into the moment with them, the more easily we are able to communicate with each other. This meant that I was no longer thinking about schedules and deadlines, such as when horseshows were or the number of months a client could afford to keep the horse with me. As I worked with more and more horses and their humans, I began to see the effects that being in the moment was having on all of us. Some said that “time stood still,” or that they felt incredibly relaxed, as if on drugs, while others said that their experience reminded them of stories from the Bible. One admitted later, “I wasn’t sure where you were going to take us, but I knew it was going to be somewhere good.” This was what drove me to make the leap from horse psychology to human psychology. Planting my roots deep into the Rogerian model gives me the bridge I need to connect my work with horses to the work I intend to do with people in the near future. My plans are to provide therapy to troubled youth and adults on probation as well as victims of abuse (usually one and the same) using the horses as therapeutic tools. The horses make excellent mirrors, serving as biological “biofeedback machines.” One client I had in the past, who suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome, once said about the horse with which we were working, “He’s taking my personality and throwing it right back into my face!” Her comment leads to another construct of Person-Centered Therapy—empathy.

Rogers believed that in order for clients to express their deepest, most painful, and potentially condemning feelings and beliefs, therapists must practice empathy (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 197). But it goes further than simply feeling what the client is feeling, because the client is likely judging himself, something the therapist must resist doing along with him; the therapist is to be completely nonjudgmental, negatively or positively (Bohart, 1988). (This is but one example why Person-Centered Therapy is more complex than it appears.) Rogers insisted that therapists continually work on their own inner feelings, building awareness of them and strengthening their sense of congruity, so that clients would not be impacted by judgmental biases during therapy sessions. To do otherwise would be counterproductive to the model, seeing how the goal is to develop congruence in the client. Congruence requires autonomy, something the client will not have if he is telling the therapist what he thinks the therapist wants to hear (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 197).

Another key construct of this model is unconditional positive regard. It is important to note that while empathy addresses the client’s emotions or state of mind within the moment, unconditional positive regard is applied in a general sense to the person’s worth as an individual (Bohart, 1988). This construct also has personal meaning to me as a result of my work with horses. After realizing that horses were not behaving badly out of a desire to prove me wrong, humiliate me in front of clients, or as a devious form of entertainment, it became clear that there were no “bad” horses. This was a profound revelation for me, as it forever changed the way I would approach horses (and eventually people).

Instead of getting irritated by their erratic behavior, I began to see it as a symptom of a problem, rather than the problem, itself. Only then did it become a game of investigation; I found myself looking for

Leonardo DeVinci's Horsemen and Horses

Leonardo DeVinci's Horsemen and Horses drawing is a beautiful example of the type of relationship I aspire to have with all horses and humans, because it demonstrates true partnership. Here we have two sensitive, strong, intelligent beings communicating their needs and desires to one another in a way that requires no force or condescension. To me, this drawing exudes a sense of freedom, trust, and lightness that can only exist when two beings relate to one another with true empathy, which is very different from anthropomorphism, or the attribution of human qualities to nonhuman beings or things. The relationship depicted here shows two very different beings respecting and celebrating one another's diversity, something I would like to see more of in both the horse industry and in human-human relationships.

idiosyncrasies, relishing at the thought of having found them! And I learned to peel them like an onion, giving me the sensation of getting closer and closer to the core problem. Although at first it appeared to take more time because I was paying attention to more details than I had in the past, the rewards were fruitful, coming like gifts, as if from nowhere. I knew I was on the right track when patterns emerged between the vast numbers of horses with which I was working. I had never before seen these patterns because I had never before looked for them. I suspect this is what Rogers was referring to when he described the effectiveness of having unconditional positive regard for his clients. I see his inclusion of this construct as a grounding mechanism, or limiting factor, for the degree of non-direction in the therapist-client working relationship. It prevents us as therapists from empathizing too much, feeling with the client his judgments and negative self-talk, simply reflecting his surface-level feelings ad nauseum (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 210). By taking an oath to have unconditional positive regard for a client, the therapist is, in effect, promising to gently push the client toward the goal of congruence and self-actualization. This gentle pushing, or directing, is also known as “interpersonal press” (Bugental, 1987, p. 91). I liken it to the example of being in the moment with the horse, going wherever it needs to go in order to identify the source of its resistance (non-directive), but also keeping in mind that the purpose of the work is to domesticate the horse, perhaps in an attempt to ride it or peacefully load it into a horse trailer (directive). It should be noted, however, that although Rogers’ model is known for its compassion, it does allow for confrontation of the client when needed (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 210).

Congruency, immediacy, empathy, and unconditional positive regard are all necessary components of the Person-Centered Theory. And because most people respond well to these, it is applicable to a wide range of populations, especially those containing motivated individuals (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 207). In fact, this model is so effective, it is considered by many to be the foundation of countless other models (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 189). It is not, however, recommended for individuals needing more direction, such as those seeking fast, clear-cut instructions (this would include people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, phobias, or those wishing to break addictions, for whom cognitive therapies might be more appropriate). Clients with biochemical imbalances can still benefit from Rogers’ Person-Centered model but may require the addition of pharmaceutical therapy for full recovery (Capuzzi & Gross, 2007, p. 207).


Bohart, A. (1988). Empathy: Client centered and psychoanalytic. American Psychologist, 43(8), 667-668. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.43.8.667.

Bugental, J. (1987). The art of the psychotherapist: How to develop the skills that take psychotherapy beyond science. New York: Norton.

Capuzzi, D. & Gross, D. (2007). Counseling and psychotherapy: Theories and interventions (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson-Merrill Prentice Hall.

© Chera Sabankaya 2011-2016

Spirit and Logic, Inc. is a Registered Trademark

Last Updated January 5th, 2013