Equine Therapy, also known as Horse Therapy, Equine-Assisted Therapy, and Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy, is a form of experiential therapy that makes use of horses in order to promote emotional growth. Equine therapy is particularly applied to patient battling with addiction, anxiety, ADD, depression, trauma, dementia, delay in mental development, and other mental health issues.
This type of new-age therapy involves activities such as feeding, grooming, haltering, and leading a horse. All patients are supervised by a mental health therapist and a horse professional. Equine assisted therapy can help with many issues and is considered to be especially helpful for problem-solving, self-control, accountability, self-confidence, and responsibility.
History of Equine Therapy
The notion of using a horse as a therapeutic aid has begun in Ancient Greece, as a means of healing people who had incurable illnesses. Its earliest recorded mention is by Hippocrates who wrote about the therapeutic value of riding.
This idea became widely spread in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the 1950’s as an adjunct to traditional physical therapy. The first standardized equine therapy curriculum appeared in the late 1980’s by a group of Canadian and American therapists. This discipline was formalized in the United States in 1992 with the creation of the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA).
In the last two decades, equine therapy has evolved to include psychological therapy. Today, more and more people are discovering how empathetic animals can be in the recovery process and equine assisted therapy continues to grow in popularity.
Horses are most widely used for therapy, although elephants, dolphins, cats, and dogs can also be helpful. This is because horses can respond immediately to the rider’s behavior, can mirror the rider’s emotion, behave similarly like human beings, and is always easy for patients to establish connection with this animal.
Horses are extremely sensitive to their environment. They analyze and react to the patient’s body language and are also able to gain insight into nonverbal communication. As a result, the patient is also able to gain insight into their own nonverbal communication and behavior patterns. This ground-based interaction with horses can facilitate the therapeutic process and they can become the focal point in client-driven discovery and analysis.
Moreover, horses are large and powerful animals. To some individuals, the intimidating size and power can present them with a challenge to overcome this fear. This can be highly liberating and can boost the patient’s self-esteem and confidence.
Horses are also very social animals and want to create bonds. Therefore, they are ideal for this type of therapy as they will develop a relationship with the patient only when the patient is ready.
Apart from being very social and sensitive, horses have their own personality. They can sometimes be stubborn and defiant, but also caring, entertaining, and nurturing. These personality traits make them the ideal natural companion in the therapeutic process.
What Can Equine Therapy Help With?
Equine Therapy can be highly beneficial for a wide range of issues, including:
- Addiction: equine therapy can be beneficial for people trying to recover from all types of addiction. Bonding with these animals helps foster respect, sense of purpose, and caring. This unique relationship can lower the patient’s stress levels, but also ease the withdrawal symptoms.
- Anger: since horses don’t respond well to anger, patients act in a different way to get the desired response. This can also motivate the patient to examine the underlying issues of their anger and what techniques could help to overcome it.
- Anxiety: a wide range of anxiety disorders are addressed during equine assisted therapy. Being in the presence of a large and powerful animal can instill feelings of anxiety, but it can also help patients overcome those feelings of worry. Moreover, equine therapy can bring individuals into the present moment and take them away from their internal worries in a helpful way.
- Autism: since equine therapy involves little verbal communication and focuses more on behavior and non-verbal cues, this can be quite helpful for people with autism.
- Behavior: behavior management is a vital part of an effective drug and alcohol treatment plan. Addictions are often accompanied by aggressive and violent tendencies which can put the patient into danger. With the help of equine therapy, addicts will learn how to communicate with and care for the horse. Furthermore, the feedback from the horse will also help the patient tell apart between hurtful and harmful behaviors.
- Diminished self-confidence: patients struggling with addiction can experience feelings of low self-confidence. Equine therapy can boost their sense of confidence, self-worth, and allows them to gain the animal’s trust and love. In addition, this feeling is powerfully affirming and can lead to an incredible sense of accomplishment.
List of the Most Notable Benefits of Equine Therapy
According to studies, equine therapy has been successful in helping patients show improvements in the following areas:
- Emotional awareness
- Stress tolerance
- Impulse control
- Problem-solving skills
- Social responsibility
- Interpersonal relationships
- Impulse control
- Spiritual connection
- Establishment of healthy relationships
- Addiction recovery
- Eating disorder recovery
- Respect for diversity and individuality
- The importance of teamwork
- The value of trust and respect
Types of Equine Therapy
Therapists and counselors who incorporate equine therapy may work with individuals, families, or groups, with a herd of horses or a single horse. Some of them may specialize in youth or adult patients, while others in substance abuse treatment. Most therapists will integrate equine therapy with other therapeutic techniques that help clients integrate and extend what they experience.
There are four types of equine therapy namely:
- Equine facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) – EFP is an experiential psychotherapy that promotes and practices interaction with horses. It assist patients with emotional and mental disabilities, including mood and anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioral changes, and life transitions.
- Equine facilitated learning (EFL) – EFL covers a wide range of social and emotional learning activities organized around horse experiences. The goal of this therapy is to help patients improve their cognitive functions, including strategies to reach goals and organize behavior. Additionally, it also allows an experiential and behavioral approach to teach concepts such as teamwork and cooperation.
- Hippotherapy – this is a type of physical, occupational, or speech therapy in which a therapist uses the characteristic movements of a horse to improve motor skills and sensory input of patients. Sensorimotor integration promotes neurological function and sensory processing. Moreover, Hippotherapy must be provided by a trained and licensed physical, occupational or speech and language therapist.
- Therapeutic riding – this involves riding activities for treatment purposes. Horseback riding can have a positive impact on the cognitive, physical, emotional, as well as on the social well-being of the participants. This activity is also highly beneficial for children suffering from autism, sensory integration disorders and Cerebral Palsy. In addition, Therapeutic Riding can mentally and physically stimulate disabled persons and helps them improve their lives through improved balance and coordination, increased self-confidence, and a greater feeling of freedom and independence.
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