What is Equine Therapy?

Courtnee Morton, DVM
Written by:
Published: July 28, 2022
What is Equine Therapy?

What Does Equine Therapy Do?

Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) programs are designed to help emotional, mental, or physical growth of people through interactions with the comforting nature of horses.

While the use of small animals for companionship and therapy has been studied for a century, horses have stepped into this role more recently. As we learn more about the connection between horses and humans, EAT programs are likely to continue expanding as complementary healing methods in conjunction with medical and talk therapy. The perceptive characteristics of horses can spark an interest and affinity in people of all ages.

What Are the Different Types of Equine Therapy?

Goals for equine therapy can be very different, depending on a person’s situation. Horses can help people look inward to overcome learning or physical difficulties, build strength and coordination, as well as develop intellectual and psychological resilience. There are a few different types of equine therapy, including Mental Health EAT programs, Therapeutic Riding, and Equine Assisted Learning.

Equine-Assisted Therapy for Mental Health

In conjunction with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, learning to care for and work with horses can help people face emotional challenges. Horses tune in to, and often mirror human feelings. EAT therapy helps build emotional self-awareness and eventually, social relationships.

Individuals on the autism spectrum or those who may struggle with empathy can find comfort in the calming nature of horses and the nonverbal cues they experience. Over time, this can become a springboard for more social engagement. Adolescents and teens especially seem to find comfort in this quiet, trustworthy bond and may become more open to talk about internal struggles through talk therapy.

Other programs are geared towards adults, such as veterans reassimilating into civilian life, anxiety-ridden millennials, or overcoming grief and loss. Some common situations in which EAT may be implemented include:

  • Grief

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

  • Autism

  • Behavior problems

  • Relationship issues

  • Addiction

  • Eating disorders

Therapeutic Riding Programs

Horses have been used for physical therapy since the mid-1900s. In 1960, the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled (CARD) was formed in the USA and Canada, followed later by the North American Riding for Handicapped Association (NARHA). Occupational, speech, and physical therapy (called hippotherapy), help those with behavioral or psychomotor disabilities learn focus, muscle control, and fine motor skills.

With the aid of a certified equine therapist and a patient four-legged companion, people can learn everything from emotional connection and communication techniques, to motor control, proper posture, balance, and muscle usage while riding. Over time, individuals will share a bond with their equine partner, gain strength and coordination, and improve their self-esteem.

Hippotherapy may be implemented with support for:

  • Autism

  • Amputation

  • Cerebral palsy

  • Down syndrome

  • Emotional or behavioral difficulties

  • Muscular dystrophy

  • Paralysis or spinal cord injury

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Spina bifida

  • Stroke

  • Traumatic brain injury

  • Visual or auditory disabilities

Equine-Assisted Learning

Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) is geared toward the development of life skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership. These sessions typically involve groundwork with horses including grooming, tacking, and basic training exercises; the aim is to build trust, emotional awareness, and self-confidence while reducing stress levels.

EAL is typically offered in the form of summer camps or year-round weekly sessions to help students learn communication between human and animal, and among other involved peers. EAL can also be implemented preventatively for depressed teens, or those at-risk for self-harm behaviors.

Practicing general but necessary care for horses and learning how to lead them through different exercises builds a strong bond between human and horse. It teaches them responsibility, how to convey feelings, and focus on a project to gain a sense of achievement.

How Effective Is Equine Therapy?

Any person who interacts with horses on a regular basis is likely to find a sense of peace and fulfillment during their trips to the barn. Equine Assisted Therapy programs can benefit people of all ages, from toddlers learning fine motor skills to adults and seniors maintaining muscle coordination, or those facing emotional or medical challenges. 

A study involving veterans showed over 50% of those enrolled in an equine program had reduced signs of depression and PTSD after two months of weekly equine therapy sessions. Studies by Washington State University have also shown that Equine Assisted Learning reduces cortisol (stress hormone) levels and increases social competency and emotional awareness in youth participants. This can be helpful for any adolescent, but particularly those at-risk or those navigating any form of abuse.

Research is ongoing for EAT and those on the autism spectrum, but so far results are promising. Focus in the face of external distractors can sometimes be difficult; the repetitive, consistent motions of being in the saddle helps create a centered cognizance. Expression via physical acts of grooming and petting, and non-verbal cues people use with horses can bring new aspects of empathy and verbal communication into perspective.

Equine therapy is a growing sector that is constantly evolving. The trust and understanding that can emerge from this complex bond between horse and human leads to social, emotional, mental, and physical growth.

Horses are highly instinctive creatures that do not hold judgement. They encourage introspective self-awareness and emotional balance that can eventually translate to better understanding of our fellow human beings. Learning to create a trustworthy connection with these four-legged creatures teaches us patience, positivity, and perseverance that can be implemented in our daily lives as a core foundation of resilience.

References

Fisher, Prudence W., et al. Equine-Assisted Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder among Military Veterans. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, vol. 82, no. 5, 2021.

Malcom, Roslyn, et al. It just opens up their world’: autism, empathy, and the therapeutic effects of equine interactions. Anthropology & Medicine, 25:2, 220-234. 2018.

Pendry, Patricia, et al. Randomized Trial Examines Effects of Equine Facilitated Learning on Adolescents' Basal Cortisol Levels. Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, vol. 2, no. 1. 2014.

Wilkie, Karlene D., et al. Evaluating the Efficacy of Equine Therapy Among At-risk Youth: A Meta-analysis. Anthrozoös, 29:3, 377-393. 2016.

Featured Image: iStock.com/RyanJLane


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