Did you know that domesticated animals are used to support and aid the healing process in individuals who struggle with mental and physical health? Beyond the loving relationship we have with our pets, these animals help navigate and understand challenging emotional thoughts and feelings.
What is Equine Therapy?
Equine-assisted therapy incorporates horses into therapy. During sessions, individuals and sometimes small groups engage in grooming, feeding, resting/cuddling, and leading the horse whilst under the supervision of a qualified mental health practitioner. The goal of the therapy is to enable individuals to regulate their emotions, improve self-confidence and self-worth, and create responsibility.
Many adult horses weigh anywhere between 900 and 2,000 pounds, which to some may feel intimidating, but their gentile nature soon puts most at ease.
The therapy which takes on many a title such as Equine-assisted mental health, Equine-assisted therapy or counselling and Equine-facilitated psychotherapy is growing in popularity.
The History of Equine Therapy
Hippocrates, a known Physician, often called “the father of medicine”, wrote of the therapeutic potential of riding horses in ancient Greek times.
In the 1950s / ’60s, riding for therapy became popular and resulted in the 1969 opening of the North American Riding for Handicap Association was created which later became PATH International.
Who uses Equine-assisted therapy?
Equine-assisted therapy can be used and benefited from by a wide variety of individuals. Horses can be used in counselling sessions of all ages and small groups such as families and peer groups.
The animal itself is not the only aspect of the therapy but rather a complementary aspect used in conjunction with more well known and traditional talking therapies. Equine-assisted therapy offers a different perspective. It draws people outdoors and provides them with the opportunity to use all their senses as they learn to process their emotions.
Children and Teens
Treatment success is similar across the board. As with adults, children can experience challenges with anxiety, trauma, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Equine therapy can offer a less threatening or harsh environment compared to traditional talking therapy rooms. There is no typical age range, but generally speaking, children start as young as six. By changing the location to a more natural state, the children and teens tend to be more able and willing to open up and process difficult emotions and factors
What is the benefit of equine therapy?
Many animals can and are used for therapy; horses offer unique traits and personalities that lead them to be top choice for many people.
Anxiety experts say horses bring the following unique elements to the therapeutic process;
- Horses are unbiased and cannot form personal opinions or judgements.
- They can provide a safe space for deep emotional feelings and experiences.
- Clients build a therapeutic rapport enabling them to work on issues such as building trust and practising vulnerability.
- Horses offer a sense of peace as they will only react to the clients’ behaviour and emotions with no threat of bias or judgemental opinions.
Feedback Given By Horses
Horses are known to be keen observers, vigilant, and sensitive to emotion and movement. They often mimic behaviours and emotions to show empathy and understanding, creating a connection of warmth and safety with a client. This connection allows clients to maintain a sense of self-awareness using the horse’s behaviour as an opportunity to process where the moment is taking them.
Managing Your Vulnerability
As clients begin to open up about their difficulties and experiences, the horse can offer a point of reference for them to being processing.
If a client finds some of their feelings particularly hard to discuss, they can use the horse as an example or compare the animal’s actions and movements to how they feel in the moment. By externalising what is in their mind, clients progress quicker and gain outside perspective.
Other Benefits of Equine Therapy
Other areas of potential benefits include;
- Emotional awareness, distress tolerance and adaptability
- Independence, social awareness and impulse control
- Higher Self-esteem and confidence
Horses require dedication and work. The animal has to be fed, watered, exercised and groomed. By proving this type of care, it helps establish structure and nurtures empathy.
Conditions aided by Animal Therapy
Animal therapy, notably equine therapy, has some strong evidence supporting its effectiveness in helping to manage many conditions.
Affecting more than one in four, anxiety or experiences of anxiety can arise from changes and uncertainty. There are times when the level and intensity of anxiety becomes so overwhelming that they are medically diagnosed. Anxiety-related condition can include;
- Separation anxiety
- The specific development of a phobia
- Selective mutism
- Generalised anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety
Many that struggle with this condition often find themselves stuck in a constant trail of worry about both the past and the future. By working with a horse, clients can stay in the present and focus on the task tasks such as grooming or feeding.
Since horses are supper vigilant and sensitive to their surroundings, they can sense danger and respond. Typically this leads to a change in behaviour and potential attempts to get away, which clients can relate to. Processing challenges through the horse’s behaviour can be easier than directly speaking about their experiences with anxiety.
Another benefit of using horses is helping and allowing clients to practise vulnerability in a safe environment. As they learn to interact with each other, the client is asked to step outside their comfort zone.
Treatment of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD, a disorder characterised by the reactivity of intrusive memories and nightmares and avoidance of events that may trigger. Sufferers often feel debilitated and trapped within anxiety and depression. Post-traumatic stress can occur in children and adults. Although everyone can experience times of trauma, it is those most affected such as victims of assault and those who have experienced combat.
The use of equine therapy in treating PTSD, especially veterans, is growing. Many equine therapists comment that clients say that although they have dealt with the initial trauma through more traditional methods, working with horses has allowed them to reconnect.
Drug and alcohol addiction continues to be problematic the world over. Equine-assisted therapy offers an approach to treating both the addiction and any underlying mental health conditions-a common occurrence.
Addiction treatment aims to remove the need for addiction and allow people to live happy and fulfilling lives. Often, clients are also working to heal from negative relationships whilst building up those such as family that means a lot to them. Learning to trust again and practice vulnerability can be very challenging. Equine therapy helps clients learn how to develop trust through interactions with animals. Clients can gain a sense of self, worth and connectedness.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is an additional area when it comes to support, as reports suggest the interaction with the horse and the full-on experience offers them an active and enjoyable time.
Riding isn’t always involved during therapy. Rather the focus is on the present moment, mindfulness, boundaries and social cues. Case studies show significantly increased positive behaviour whilst bonding with the horse and reducing negative behaviour following the session.
Equine partners in counselling (ECIC) founder Kay Trotter published a paper on the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy in Creativity in Mental Health. Her report shes that clients experience a wide variety of benefits from EAP, including;
- Increased self-respect and esteem
- Improved focus and reduction in aggression
- Less stressful relationships with friends, colleagues and family
- Improved adjustability to changes in routine
For those struggling with ADHD, the sense of accomplishment after sessions can be of great benefit. Kit Muellner, a Clinical social worker, says that clients feel accomplished as they have achieved something on their own rather than being told or guided. This sense of self-accomplishment feels significant to everyone and especially to those who struggle with ADHD. During those connected moments, they get real-time feedback from the horse and are developing bonds of trust. It teaches effective non-verbal communication and teamwork in accomplishing a milestone.
Equine Assisted Therapists
The EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) is a non-profit organisation setting the standards for professionals working with horses. They offer training and certifications for those wishing to become recognised equine-trained therapy professionals.
To provide or conduct equine therapy, you will need to contact your local authority to learn about the educational, clinical and professional requirements needed to become licenced.
Factors To Consider
When considering equine therapy for yourself or your family, it is important to consider physical health and ability. Whilst most places accommodate disabilities, some who offer riding may not allow clients to physically sit on the horse.
Timing for EAP is dependant on the challenges a client is facing. For example, clients recovering from addiction will need appropriate time to detox and establish compliance before being offered the option of equine therapy.
Fear Of Horses
Although animal therapy has shown to be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and other conditions, a client may fear being around certain animal-horses, for example. There may also be a traumatic event/memory involving an animal that would prevent a client from participating in the therapy session.
It is important to seek professional mental health advice to determine the suitability of equine-assisted therapy. Most centres will have a suitability assessment process to determine the best course of treatment.