For many centuries, animals have been shown to positively impact human health and functioning through direct human-animal contact. Nowadays, there are service animal programs and a broad range of animal-assisted therapies (AAT) used for treating physical and mental health disorders.
Equine therapy is one of the most commonly used forms of AAT for the treatment of diseases affecting mental health. This does not come as a surprise. Literature from the 17th century indicates that riding horses was used to treat neurological diseases. Even Hippocrates, the father of medicine, talked about riding and healing.
What Is Equine Therapy?
In equine-assisted therapy (EAT) horses are incorporated into the therapeutic process and play an essential role in recovery. An article by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health defines equine therapy as an interaction between horse and patient to promote physical and mental health, social functioning, and learning. The activity must be led by a certified equine therapist. The aim is to support and improve the participant’s bodily, cognitive, and psychological functions.
How Does Equine Therapy Work?
EAT can help people overcome many physical challenges and psychological disorders. Equine therapy can be different for each individual. The method used will depend on the individual’s needs, type of health struggles, and end goals. However, all therapy methods have something in common: they promote a deeper connection with oneself, one’s senses, the outside world, and others. The following are some of the different types of equine therapy:
The client will work alongside an equine therapist to improve mental health conditions and substance use disorders. Considered a form of “talk therapy,” they will be able to ride or work with horses using all of their senses and the environment to connect with their thoughts and emotions.
With this form of therapy, the focus is on improving communication skills, confidence, self-control, and self-awareness through the interaction between horse and patient. The horse and therapist will help teach the client safety, respect, boundaries, trust, responsibility, and other life skills.
A certified therapeutic riding instructor is required for this type of therapy. There is evidence that it helps improve confidence, self-esteem, self-confidence, and trauma healing.
The client will sit or lay on the horse while a licensed physical, speech, or occupational therapist ensures safety. The movements help improve postural balance, core strength, trunk stability, coordination, and neuromuscular disorders.
Advantages of Equine-Assisted Therapy
The various forms of EAT show positively affect physical, cognitive, psychological, and social functions. The combination of equine therapy with other typical therapy methods provides better results than regular therapy alone. Since attachments form between people and animals, this type of therapy stimulates the development of diverse abilities. Interacting with the horse can help with balance, coordination, fitness, memory, self-confidence, mood, patience, how one treats themselves and others, behavioral problems, and more.
These specific traits are unique to horses and make EAT stand out from regular forms of therapy and other AATs:
- Broad body-to-body contact
- High body temperature causes a decrease in muscle spasticity and hypertonicity
- Width provides stretches in different muscle groups
- Tri-rotational movement produces forces similar to walking, which improve core strength and nervous function
- Ability to mimic their environment and interactions reflecting the patient’s emotional and physical state and encouraging self-awareness
- Conditioned to be mindful but unbiased and non-judgemental
- Being out in nature with the horse encourages feelings of gratitude, mindfulness, and balance
Evidence shows that equine therapy provides a plethora of health benefits, some of which are:
- Improved self-confidence/self-acceptance
- Healthy boundaries
- Reduced anxiety and depression
- Impulse control
- Improved communication skills
- Learning to care for oneself and others
- Social and self-awareness
- Distress tolerance
- Trust in self and others
- Identifying and coping with thoughts and emotions
Disorders That Can Be Treated
Equine therapy provides an immense amount of health benefits. Several physical and mental health disorders can benefit and improve with the use of this modality. These include but are not limited to:
- Substance use disorder
- Panic disorders/phobias
- Eating disorders
- Behavioral disorders
- Muscular dystrophy
- Multiple sclerosis
- Spina bifida
- Spinal cord injuries
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Down syndrome
- Learning difficulties
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Visual and auditory disabilities
Equine Therapy in Substance Use Disorders
The journal Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment studied the numerous benefits of EAT in addiction. The participants of the study highlighted that equine therapy was something to look forward to and a nice variation from their usual treatment routine. Being outside and connecting with the horses allowed them to focus on the present moment instead of the issues they were facing. They also mentioned that caring for the horses taught them a lot about responsibility, caring for themselves, and caring for others.
Although they enjoyed the activity, it was noted that what fulfilled them most was the opportunity to do something productive and useful. Feeling important and that their existence makes a difference made all the difference for them. It was also acknowledged that being in the stable as opposed to the inpatient facility allowed them to truly focus on and discover who they really are beyond a substance use disorder patient. Some even acknowledged that if it were not for horse therapy they would have abandoned treatment. They were able to build a positive self, one of acceptance, importance and need and change for the better.