Can Horses Really Help With Healing? Exploring Equine-Assisted Therapy

Picture a breathtaking, serene landscape. Imagine green fields on rolling hills, with pristine mountain peaks in the distance. Now picture the gentle presence of majestic horses within this landscape. Your heart rate has probably slowed down just thinking about this scene, and for good reasons.

In the therapy field, where human connection and innovative approaches intertwine, there exists a fascinating treatment known as equine-assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). Equine-assisted therapy harnesses the innate power and wisdom of horses, offering a unique and transformative journey toward healing and recovery.

Equine-assisted therapy has become an increasingly popular form of therapy that involves interactions between humans and horses. This may sound like a simple concept, but EAT encompasses many therapeutic interventions aimed at recovery and healing.

Through this article, we will dive into the remarkable world of equine-assisted therapy, exploring the intricate bond between humans and horses and unravelling the potential of this profound therapeutic approach to touch the depths of the human soul.

Understanding equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP)

First, let’s explore a little history. 

Equine-assisted therapy can be traced back to ancient civilizations. Using horses for therapeutic purposes can be found throughout various cultures in history.

A peek into the past

In the mid-20th century, equine-assisted therapy emerged as a recognised practice in the fields of physical and occupational therapy. 

One significant figure was a Danish equestrian, Lis Hartel, who contracted polio in 1943. Even though she was paralyzed from the knees down, she still competed in the 1952 Olympic Games and won a silver medal in dressage. This achievement raised awareness of the therapeutic benefits of working with horses for people with disabilities.

During the 1960s and 1970s, equine-assisted therapy gained further recognition, and programs focusing on using horses as a therapeutic tool began to emerge. The North American Riding for Handicapped Association (now known as PATH International) was born in the US in 1969.

How equine-assisted therapy is used today

kids taking care of horses in a ranch

Since the 1970s, equine-assisted therapy has continued to evolve. Today, it is used in various fields, including:

  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Speech and language therapy
  • Mental health counselling
  • Substance abuse recovery centres
  • Rehabilitation programs

Central to equine-assisted therapy is the belief that horses possess an intuitive understanding of human emotions and can respond non-judgmentally and authentically to individuals. 

Research shows that horses are highly perceptive creatures and can sense even the most subtle changes in human body language, tone of voice, and emotional states. Incredibly, horses also have the remarkable ability to reflect these emotions back to humans, offering them the chance to explore and gain insights into their own feelings and behaviours.

How does equine-assisted therapy work?

Equine-assisted therapy involves structured activities in a safe and controlled environment.  Individuals, under the guidance of trained professionals, engage with horses in various ways, including:

  • Therapeutic riding
  • Equine-assisted learning
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy
  • Grooming and bonding with horses
  • Leading horses through obstacles

A licensed therapist or counsellor, working collaboratively with a horse professional, facilitates the therapeutic process. The therapist sets goals, creates activities, and guides individuals through interactions with the horses, while the horse professional ensures the safety of both the participants and the horses.

These activities are carefully designed to promote:

  • Self-awareness
  • Emotional regulation
  • Communication skills
  • Trust-building
  • Boundary-setting
  • Problem-solving
  • Teamwork

It is important to note that equine-assisted therapy is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each EAT session is customised to the individual or group, which takes into consideration their unique therapeutic goals.

The therapist develops the interactions between the participants and horses as metaphors for real-life situations, which can help with:

  • Facilitating discussions and reflections that help individuals gain insights
  • Developing coping strategies
  • Building trust and communication
  • Making positive changes in their lives

Equine-assisted therapy is a versatile therapeutic method that can be beneficial for a wide range of people. 

It has shown promise in addressing mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, trauma, and addiction. It has also been used as a supportive therapy for individuals with autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and eating disorders. 

Additionally, equine-assisted therapy has been used in rehabilitation settings to help people recovering from physical injuries or disabilities.

As the field of equine-assisted therapy continues to grow, research is being carried out to explore its effectiveness. While scientific evidence is still emerging, the countless personal testimonies and anecdotal accounts of positive experiences highlight the profound impact that horses can have on human healing and recovery.

What are the benefits of equine-assisted therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy offers a range of benefits that promote health and healing. 

Let’s take a look at a few:

Physical benefits

Equine-assisted therapy can have significant physical benefits for individuals with disabilities or injuries.

Horseback riding helps improve balance, coordination, and muscle strength. This study explains how the three-dimensional movement of the horse’s gait mimics the human gait, thus enhancing core stability, strength and mobility. 

This therapy can be particularly helpful for individuals with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or spinal cord injuries.

Emotional and psychological benefits

Interacting with horses can have profound emotional and psychological effects.

Horses are highly perceptive animals and can mirror human emotions. Equine-assisted therapy can boost one’s self-esteem, enhance communication skills, and foster empathy. 

It is particularly effective in treating those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety disorders, depression, and autism spectrum disorders.

Relationship building and trust

Building a bond with a horse can facilitate the development of trust, empathy, and healthy relationship patterns. Horses are known for their non-judgmental nature, which naturally creates a safe space for individuals to be themselves. Trust building can then be transferred to human relationships.

Social skills and communication

Interacting with horses and participating in group activities during equine-assisted therapy can improve social skills. Working as a team, practising cooperation, and effective communication with the horse and therapists or other participants can improve interpersonal relationships and social confidence.

Therapeutic bond

Developing a bond with a horse can be a transformative experience. Horses are accepting, allowing individuals to form deep connections and experience unconditional love. The therapeutic bond created during equine-assisted therapy can provide a sense of comfort, companionship, and of course, emotional support.

What research supports equine-assisted therapy?

Numerous studies have investigated the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy across various populations. While more research is needed, the existing literature provides promising evidence of EAT’s positive effects in the following areas:

Substance abuse

Equine-assisted therapy has shown promise in assisting individuals with substance abuse issues. A research study published in Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy (2022) indicated that participants who engaged in equine-assisted therapy reported reduced cravings, improved positive emotional affect, and increased self-confidence in managing addiction.

PTSD and trauma

Research conducted at the Columbia University Medical Center demonstrated that veterans with PTSD who participated in equine-assisted therapy experienced decreased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and hypervigilance. The research study was published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

At-risk youth

A little girl hugging horse outdoors at community farm.

A study published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health (2022) reported that equine-assisted therapy had positive effects on at-risk youth in residential care. The results reported improvements in trusting others and feeling more connected with peers.

Physical disabilities

This study published in 2017 reports that equine-assisted therapies have positive physical effects on those with neuromotor, developmental, and physical disabilities. The research focused on how therapeutic riding helped patients with balance, gait, and psychomotor disorders.

Autism spectrum disorders

A study published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (2018) found that equine-assisted therapy significantly improved social functioning and reduced the severity of symptoms in children with autism spectrum disorders. Several other key studies have also been published on how equine-assisted therapy helps those with autism.

What is the takeaway?

Equine-assisted therapy offers a unique approach to healing and personal growth.

Through their intuitive and empathetic nature, horses contribute to the therapeutic process, providing physical, emotional, and psychological benefits to people across populations.

While further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms underlying equine-assisted therapy, the existing studies demonstrate its potential as a valuable tool to use alongside traditional therapy approaches. 

Equine-assisted therapy will continue to grow and holds promise for helping people achieve healing from all types of physical, mental, and emotional issues.

Camino Recovery offers equine-assisted therapy

Camino Recovery is a renowned facility dedicated to supporting individuals in their journey to healing and recovery. Camino offers equine-assisted psychotherapy as one of its many treatment options for clients.  

Within a serene and compassionate environment, we provide a range of evidence-based therapies and treatment programs tailored to meet the unique needs of each person. 

Our highly trained and experienced team of therapists, counsellors, and medical professionals offers personalised care and support throughout the recovery process, including free continuing care once residential treatment is completed.

Contact us today for a free, confidential consultation with one of our professionals to see if Camino Recovery is the right fit for you or your loved one.

Don Lavender

Don specialized in addiction studies, earning an MDiv and a master's in Management, Administration, and Counseling. As a priest, he supported Step 5s in local treatment centers for nearly 40 years, excelling in "family systems work" in the addiction field.

Additionally, Don pioneered equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) in the US and UK during the 1990s. He authored "Equine Utilized Psychotherapy: Dance with those that run with laughter" and gained media recognition, including appearances on 'the Trisha Show' and features in The Daily Telegraph.

In the early 2000s, Don and his wife, Meena, founded Camino Recovery in Spain, providing tailored addiction treatment programs aimed at fostering happier lives.

More from Don Lavender

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