Majestic, powerful, strong, gentle, smart, and intuitive – these are just a few of the unique and wonderful characteristics found in horses. These incredible and beautiful creatures often play a very special role in helping individuals recover from trauma, mental health issues, various types of addiction, and other serious life challenges.
Equine-assisted therapy, also known as equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) or “horse therapy” as it’s occasionally called, involves the use of horses as part of the therapeutic process. In fact, when it comes to animal-assisted therapy, horses are the most popular and widely used animal. One of the primary reasons for this is because many people are easily able to connect with horses. Additionally, horses – like humans – are very responsive and social creatures.
It’s long been understood by mental health professionals that horses and other animals can significantly enhance the healing process in humans. By interacting with horses in various ways, individuals struggling with complex and challenging disorders such as PTSD, addiction, and anorexia are able to access and express previously blocked emotions, significantly increase their self-awareness, reduce their anxiety, and learn to communicate and solve problems more effectively.
Equine-assisted therapy has helped many patients – particularly those who were struggling in or resistant to other types of therapy – make great strides in their recovery.
Basic Premise of Equine-Assisted Therapy
Working with horses gives individuals a unique opportunity to learn about themselves. Unlike humans, horses don’t judge. They don’t have hidden agendas or expectations. They also are very intuitive, and will reflect the attitudes and feelings of the people working with them. This allows the patients to receive excellent feedback from the horse during therapy.
During therapy, patients typically exhibit patterns in their behavior, communication, and interactions with the horse that represent how they are in their everyday lives. As the therapist observes and interacts with the patient, this information is helpful in terms of identifying the problem areas that need the most work. The horse essentially becomes a therapeutic tool to help the patient identify, explore, process, and change negative thought processes, emotional issues, interpersonal problems, and self-defeating behaviors.
Working with the horse requires certain skills and traits that patients can develop and use in other areas of their lives. These include assertiveness, accountability, leadership, teamwork, good non-verbal communication, self-confidence, trust, creative problem solving, and taking responsibility.
What to Expect from EAP
Equine-assisted therapy is typically used in combination with other treatment modalities, as opposed to a stand-alone form of therapy. It is frequently used in residential treatment settings for patients recovering from eating disorders, alcoholism, or drug addiction. It is also often used in outpatient treatment programs as well as aftercare programs following drug rehab. EAP is often introduced in the middle or latter stages of an integrated treatment program, rather than right at the beginning.
EAP sessions are often conducted in small groups, although individual sessions are not uncommon. Depending on the program and facility, sessions may occur anywhere from once a week to daily. Sessions are typically led by a mental health professional who is certified in equine-assisted therapy.
Activities involved during EAP typically include feeding, grooming, harnessing or haltering, and leading a horse. While some programs also involve horseback riding, equine-assisted therapy usually doesn’t. The horses used in EAP are typically gentle and easy to work with (as opposed to high-spirited horses or ones that are easily spooked). This is essential for the safety of the patients, as well as the horses.
Benefits of Equine-Assisted Therapy
Working with horses in a therapeutic environment has many benefits. Following are just a few of them:
Increased self-awareness – Horses are sensitive, responsive, and intuitive animals. By providing immediate and honest feedback, patients can begin to see how their actions and non-verbal communication may be impacting others. For example, a patient who is too rough or aggressive will cause a horse to shy away. The patient can learn and practice new skills while interacting with the horse that will elicit more positive responses. Patients who tend to be aggressive can learn to be appropriately assertive instead.
Improved focus and attention – Working with animals effectively and safely requires paying attention and staying focused on the task at hand.
Increased self-confidence – Horses are large, powerful, and potentially intimidating creatures. Patients who struggle with low self-esteem or a sense of powerlessness can gain a new sense of confidence and inner strength when learning how to lead and harness such a majestic creature. They begin to see themselves as worthy and big, rather than small and insignificant. Additionally, they learn that allowing themselves to be vulnerable in a safe setting is healthy and facilitates healing.
Relaxed, motivating environment – Therapy patients are typically used to sitting indoors during treatment. EAP gives them the opportunity to experience treatment in a relaxed, outdoor environment. This can be a very welcome change of scenery, which can help patients feel more enthusiastic and motivated.
Increased sense of personal responsibility – As patients care for and bond with the horse they are working with, they develop a greater sense of responsibility. Caring for another living being also helps them develop greater compassion, empathy, and humility. If they are required to care for the horse’s needs throughout each day, it can also help them become more flexible, as well as teach them how to anticipate the needs of another.
The experience of acceptance and non-judgment – Many people in therapy are working to heal deep emotional wounds. Their interactions with horses in EAP may be the first time in their life that they truly felt accepted rather than judged. This can be extremely powerful in terms of healing. Unlike the people who have hurt them, horses don’t reject them, reprimand them, or put them down.
Improved emotional expression – Some people find it much easier to open up emotionally to an animal than another human being. For individuals who’ve been keeping painful emotions bottled up inside, working with a horse – who’s always willing to listen without talking back or judging – can help them begin to open up emotionally. The patient’s regular therapist may encourage them to talk to the horse, making it easier for them to open up in therapy as well as to family members or friends that they trust.
Disorders and Issues That Can Benefit From EAP
Equine-assisted therapy is quite versatile in terms of the vast array of mental health symptoms and disorders and other challenging issues it can benefit. They include:
- Drug and alcohol addiction
- Eating disorders
- Behavioral problems
- Communication deficits
- Relationship problems
- Anxiety disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
- Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
- Relapse Prevention
- Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Grief and loss
- Compulsive behaviors
- Trauma recovery
- Learning difficulties
- Gambling addiction
- Sex addiction
- Stress management
- Problems with boundaries
- Trust issues
Equine-assisted therapy can be a profound therapeutic experience. If you’re interested in learning more about EAP, or feel that you or someone you love would benefit from a treatment program that offers it, you can search for equine-assisted therapy programs in your area. Keep in mind that EAP is typically offered only as part of a larger, integrated treatment program, such as residential or outpatient alcohol and drug rehab.