These days, therapy doesn’t always look like sitting in someone’s office with a box of tissues in your lap. While it may not be as common as other forms of therapy, equine therapy has been around since the 1990s as a valuable modality, first for treating polio and later for mental health concerns. Let’s take a closer look at equine therapy and all that it entails.
What is equine therapy?
Equine therapy is exactly as it sounds, experiential animal-assisted therapy that utilizes horses to engage in activities while addressing and working through issues. It can be both physical and cognitive therapy.
This doesn’t mean that equine therapy solely entails riding horses. Activities in equine therapy can include:
- Choosing a horse you connect with
- Grooming, feeding and caring for your horse
- Walking, trotting, mounting and lunging
- Playing equine games
- Discussing your feelings and thought processes for each activity as you handle the horse
Equine therapy is practiced with a mental health professional alongside a horse handler in order to effectively combine the two approaches. It can also work in tandem with other treatments being sought, such as addiction treatment or cognitive behavioral therapy. Equine therapy is a great resource that can be used to complement and reinforce most other treatment methods.
How, or why, does equine therapy work?
In part, equine therapy is thought to be so effective because of horses’ sensitive and perceptive nature. Horses are thought to act as emotional mirrors to humans, meaning they can be closely attuned to their handler’s emotions, and they can respond accordingly. This enables both horse and human to feel safe and connected with one another, which can help to foster more openness during therapy.
There is also the added benefit of horses being animals rather than humans; they are not capable of judging or being biased. Some individuals are hesitant to go to therapy – with a human therapist – for fear of being judged for sharing deeply personal and painful issues. Horses eliminate this concern altogether and equine therapy provides a fun, nontraditional setting for confronting challenges.
Equine therapy may also be beneficial for children who have experienced traumatic events and may not be comfortable verbally expressing their pain.
What are the benefits of equine therapy?
There are likely more benefits to equine therapy than appear at first blush, as discussed, it is more complex than riding and playing with horses for a few hours.
The practice of caring for a horse has a multitude of benefits in its own right. Being responsible for grooming, feeding and training a horse can build self-confidence, self-awareness, trust and independence. It can also help to improve emotional awareness, of oneself and of others, as the patient must be in tune with the emotions of their horse.
In terms of physical and mental benefits, researchers in Hawaii and Tennessee have observed equine therapy patients reporting the following positive benefits:
- Feeling more oriented in the present
- Feeling less burdened by regret, guilt and resentment
- Feeling less focused on fears about the future
- Feeling more independent
- Feeling more self-supportive
There have also been similarly promising results in patients seeking treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), including:
- Increased self-esteem, particularly in adolescents
- Increased self-respect
- Improved adherence to rules, routines and guidelines
- Improved focus
- Decreased stress in friendships
- Reduced aggression, especially in children and youths with trauma histories
Who partakes in equine therapy?
Equine therapy can be used to treat a variety of physical and mental illnesses. Of late, there has been particular interest in employing equine therapy to treat veterans experiencing, or at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or suicide.
In addition to PTSD, there have been several other physical and mental illnesses known to benefit from equine therapy including:
- Cerebral palsy
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Selective mutism
- Multiple sclerosis
- Spinal cord injuries
- Panic disorder
- Drug and alcohol addiction
- Social anxiety disorder
- Phobias, including equinophobia, or fear of horses
- Behavioral issues
Is equine therapy right for me?
You’ll never know until you try, and you may surprise yourself. If you are curious or want to learn about how to get started with equine therapy, feel free to reach out to us here at Silver Ridge Recovery at (855) 945-7788.