Equine therapy, or horse therapy, is considered an experiential treatment method, which means it allows a person to immerse him or herself in a certain experience or activity. Experiential therapy uses tools like role-playing, poetry, and animal interactions, among others to create that experience or activity. Taking care of and interacting with animals, in particular, can have a healing effect. Animal-assisted therapy sessions may include animals such as dogs or horses.
What are the Benefits of Equine Therapy?
Beyond the owner-pet relationship that many people have experienced, animals can provide an incredible amount of emotional support. This is why they are sometimes used in therapy to help people handle challenging emotional experiences.
Equine therapy uses horses and the ability to care for them and ride them to produce a number of therapeutic benefits. Some of the therapeutic benefits that come from horse therapy include the following:
One of the primary benefits of equine therapy is teaching individuals how to trust. Horse therapy teaches individuals how to trust horses, therapists, and themselves. The ability to have such trust is a big step towards growth in interpersonal relationships.
Reduction of Anxiety
Research on human-animal interaction shows that contact with animals and horses reduces physical anxiety levels significantly. Some people are afraid of horses at first, but with the help of a therapist and a trained therapy horse, people become enabled to take advantage of equine therapy to reduce their anxiety.
Decreasing Isolation and Depression
Often, depression is associated with feelings of rejection by peers, feeling different than peers, and feeling left out. It is an isolating experience. The unconditional and non-verbal acceptance of horses though can encourage people that are depressed and suffering from substance addictions to get back interacting with other human beings.
During horse therapy, people practice their mindfulness. This is because, during horse therapy, people learn to live in the present and be calm, centered, focused, and totally engaged.
By practicing mindfulness, individuals are able to learn new, positive ways of feeling. This has a substantial impact on the following things:
Improved self-esteem is one of the major benefits of equine therapy. This is because people in horse therapy improve their confidence as they challenge themselves to learn and master new skills. Taking on new projects and challenges in a non-competitive and non-judgmental situation also leads to improved confidence, self-assurance, and self-esteem.
People who struggle with impulse control and emotional regulation could benefit from equine therapy. This is because the need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively during horse therapy encourages the skills of:
- emotional awareness
- emotion regulation
- impulse control
Communicating and achieving emotional agreement with a large animal promotes intuition, gets people out of their comfort zones and helps people to become patients. A horse’s sensitivity to non-verbal communications especially helps people in equine therapy gain a better awareness of their emotions and the non-verbal cues that they may be communicating with others.
Effectively working with a large animal can be intimidating. One of the benefits of equine therapy though is that it provides a foundation to learn how to be more assertive, clear, and direct.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy is not the only form of addiction treatment. It’s an interrelated service to be used in connection with more traditional forms of addiction treatment.
Horse therapy offers a different experience than traditional talk therapy. It brings individuals outside and provides them with an opportunity to use all of their senses while learning and dealing with emotional confrontations.
Equine Therapy for Addiction Treatment
It’s well known that drug and alcohol addiction continues to rise in the U.S. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 90,000 people died from a drug overdose in 2020. Since 2015, the percentage of U.S. deaths attributed to overdoses rose from 1.9% to 2.8% in 2020. Therefore, the need for effective therapies to treat addiction is at an all-time high.
One of the benefits of equine therapy is that it offers a special approach to treating addiction and co-occurring conditions. A co-occurring condition is also referred to as a dual diagnosis, meaning that the individual simultaneously suffers from a substance addiction and a mental health disorder. People often suffer from dual diagnoses.
The goals of addiction treatment are to help clients live sober, productive, and healthy lives. Frequently in addiction treatment, people are also working to heal problems within relationships with friends, romantic partners, and/or family members.
Equine-assisted therapy helps people learn how to build trust through their interactions with the horses. This is because equine therapy helps people create bonds with their horses that make them feel safe.
Equine therapy can also encourage addicts to be more open to emotional risks. This is because horse therapy helps people become willing to learn to love and be loved, learn new things, and interact with new creatures.
Recognizing and Processing Feelings
Horses can help people identify their feelings. This is beneficial for people that suffer from substance addictions because such people are known for numbing their feelings through the use of alcohol and drugs.
Once individuals that suffer from substance addictions get sober, they often don’t know what to do with their feelings or how to identify them. Thus, being newly recovered from substance addiction can be a confusing and frustrating time.
Through equine therapy though, horses provide individuals with information. For example, if you walk toward a horse with anger and grab its halter or lead, it will pull its head back and move away. A therapist, on the other hand, might ask what you’re angry about but, most of the time, the person will deny being angry. The behavior of the horse is evidence of a feeling the individual may not be able to identify. Thus, horses are a good tool for therapists to help people identify their emotions so they can work through them.
What Can Be Treated with Equine Therapy?
Some of the disorders that respond well to equine therapy include:
- Substance use disorders (SUDs)
- Trauma, Stress, PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome)
- Eating disorders
- Behavior disorders
- Traumatic brain injury
- Learning difficulties
- Autism, Asperger’s
- Down Syndrome
Who Can Benefit from Equine Therapy?
Research has shown that horse therapy and equine-assisted activities are appropriate therapeutic approaches for:
Just like adults, children often experience difficulties such as:
- Other issues
One of the benefits of equine therapy for children is that it provides an environment that can feel less threatening and more appealing than a typical talk therapy office. Most of the children who participate in equine therapy are between the ages of 6 to 18 years old.
Why Horses for Therapy?
Even though a variety of animals may be used in the process of psychotherapy, horses have special traits that have made them a top choice for animal-assisted therapies. According to Dr. Robin Zasio, an anxiety expert, horses bring the following unique traits to therapy:
Non-judgmental and Impartial Atmosphere
It can be uncomfortable for people to examine their deep emotional and painful experiences and openly share their thoughts, even though therapists do their best to provide safe spaces. Having the horse during therapy though may offer a feeling of peace. This is because horses only react to people’s behaviors and emotions without any threat of partiality or any judgment of a human’s emotional experience.
Mirroring and Feedback
Horses are sharp observers and are watchful and sensitive to movement and emotion. Often, they will mirror a person’s behavior or emotions. Such mirroring behavior not only helps provide people with understanding and a sense of connection to the horses, but it also gives people a sense of safety.
Also, mirroring and feedback allow people to maintain a feeling of self-awareness by using the horse’s behavior and interactions as feedback. This provides people with opportunities to check-in and understand what is happening at the moment.
The Ability to Manage Vulnerability
While patients might feel vulnerable when trying to open up about emotional issues, past experiences, or life changes, the horse can offer a comparison for people to use to understand their feelings. If an experience feels too painful to speak about, it can be a bit easier for a patient to process using the horse as an example. Or an individual might line up his or her experience with a horse’s experiences at the moment. Externalizing thoughts, events, or feelings this way can make it easier to approach and work through.
Care and Nurturing
People need to take care of horses. This is because horses have to be fed, watered, exercised, and groomed.
Giving this type of care to horses though can be therapeutic. This is because caring for horses helps individuals establish structure and routines. In addition, the act of caring and nurturing something else can help individuals build empathy.
What Skills Do People Learn in Equine Therapy?
Individuals who take part in equine therapy use feelings, behaviors, and patterns to understand horses and themselves better. Most equine therapy is assisted in its progress by non-verbal communication skills because horses, like other animals, communicate non-verbally. They use body language and often mirror the behaviors and emotions of the people around them.
Equine-assisted therapy builds skills in the following areas:
- Personal responsibility
- Work ethic
- Emotional growth
- Building relationships
- Emotional awareness
- Social skills
- Impulse control
- Trust and empathy
- Trust in others and in self
How Does It Work?
Equine therapy focuses on learning to manage a horse psychologically rather than through riding skills and horsemanship. Individuals in equine therapy programs learn first how to groom a horse. Then step by step, they gain self-confidence and the trust of the horses. They go through steps to ultimately ride the horse on trails.
Horses also help people build important relationship skills. For most people, riding are
horse is an issue of trust. They have to be willing to trust the horse before they can succeed at it. This brings up trust issues that the person may be having in their lives.
People who have been unwilling or unable to build healthy, positive relationships in their lives sometimes find their relationships with a horse to be the first successful relationship they’ve ever had. This successful relationship can be used as a model for other relationships because it teaches empathy and patience.
Similar to human relationships, successful riding and horse training require positive, healthy communication. Horses respond best to self-assured body language and straightforward cues, not mixed signals that people often give at first.
Eventually, individuals learn that communication with a horse is two-sided. The same is with people. Communicating with a horse requires individuals to pay attention to what their four-legged partner is saying.
Does It Work?
There have been several studies done that investigated the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy compared to traditional therapy sessions. Usually, doctors and therapists depend on what is called evidence-based practice before putting something into practice “officially.” The American Psychological Association (APA) refers to equine-assisted therapy as an evidence-based practice.
History of Equine Therapy
The use of horses for therapeutic purposes has been since the time of the ancient Greeks who wrote about the benefits of horse riding. They called it hippotherapy (hippo means horse in Greek). Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Medicine” wrote about the beneficial potential of horseback riding.
However, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that modern psychotherapists began using existing principles of therapeutic riding. This has been developed to treat polio and other health issues and to treat mental health problems. Modern psychotherapists then began The North American Riding for Handicapped Association. The NARHA, which was formed in 1969. It later became the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International.
Different Types of Horse Therapy
There are differences between equine-assisted therapy, hippotherapy, and therapeutic riding. The differences are:
- Hippotherapy–focuses more on occupational, speech, and physical therapy
- Therapeutic riding–geared for people with conditions such as cerebral palsy or Down syndrome who need more physical support while riding to help them have better backs and structural health.
- Equine-assisted therapy–may be used to treat a number of mental health and substance use disorders.
Getting Treatment for Substance Abuse
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