Equine therapy, aka equine-assisted therapy (EAT), is a form of experiential therapy that involves interactions and activities with horses. It does not necessarily involve riding horses, but activities related to horses, such as feeding, grooming, haltering and leading them.
Equine therapy takes place under the supervision of a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, and often alongside a horse specialist.
What does equine therapy treat?
In conjunction with other forms of treatment, equine therapy has been used successfully used to treat:
- Drug and alcohol addiction
- Substance abuse
- Mental illnesses like autism, Asperger's, bipolar disorder, and more
- Eating disorders and other behavioral addictions (sex addiction, gambling addiction, etc.)
How does equine therapy work?
While many different animals are used for therapy, horses are favored for a few reasons. First, horses are generally known to be non-judgmental and accepting animals, making it easy for patients to form a bond with them.
Second, horses tend to behave similarly to humans when it comes to responsive social behavior. This means the therapist and patient can draw parallels between interacting with horses as compared to people, and process what comes up both in the moment and after the session with the horse.
Finally, horses frequently mirror the demeanor, mood, and behavior of humans with whom they interact. This makes them valuable therapeutic assistants, since a patient can actually see the effect they're having on the animal, and how it shifts when they show up differently (for example, when they are agitated, the horse tends to be agitated; when the patient is more calm and relaxed, so is the horse).
What is a session like?
In equine or horse therapy, under the guidance of trained equine therapists, a patient interacts with a horse in a specified way. For example, a patient might be asked to get a horse to move outside of a circle without touching it.
Some patients might try to yell at the horse, clap, or whistle at it. They might learn that the best way to get the horse to move is not actually to yell at it, but to speak gently and encourage it. Patients can make the association that similarly, they don't react well (or behave defensively) when they are yelled at.
Patients may also be taught how to lead a horse. When asked to lead, they frequently start by standing in front of the horse and attempting to pull the horse with the lead rope. They discover that, in fact, the best way to lead a horse is not by standing in front nor behind, but by its side. Therapists might explore this with a patient, asking them why they think the horse prefers that someone stand next to them, and what the patient's own preference is (metaphorically).
While engaging in equine therapy, patients are able to see their own tendencies, including self-defeating or otherwise negative thought patterns. Such insights provide both patient and therapist a unique base from which to discuss and process emotions and reactions both during and after the experience.
What are the advantages of equine therapy?
The purpose of equine therapy is to help patients identify, explore, and build positive and necessary skills, such as self-confidence, self-control, problem-solving, responsibility, and boundaries. It also provides therapists with a direct channel through which to observe and assist the patient with emotional and behavioral patterns, including those associated with mental health disorders.
Studies show that equine therapy helps patients:
- Build their sense of self-worth and self-regard
- Improve communication skills
- Develop impulse control
- Manage their emotions more smoothly and effectively
- Learn their own limits and boundaries
- Develop social skills and responsibility, helping them to decrease isolation
- Build trust and faith in themselves (self-efficacy)
Equine therapy is one of many forms of experiential therapy that has been shown to be remarkably successful when it comes to treating those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction in both teens as well as adults.
The important thing to keep in mind is that each individual is different, and different things will work for different people. Expanding the breadth and depth of treatment options only helps the process overall, as it allows for new skills to be created and new, healthy behaviors to be established.