What Is Equine Therapy Used For?
“I’ve often said there’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” ~ Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. President
Horses are beautiful, majestic beings, but beyond their physical attributes, they have the ability to connect to humans in a way that is deeply healing. The first mention of therapeutic horseback riding harkens back to ancient Greek literature. In modern times, the benefits of equine therapy were recognized initially as a complementary treatment for healing physical wounds. In 1918, the physiotherapist Olive Sands organized a therapeutic riding program for soldiers wounded in World War 1.
Growing Support for Equine Therapy
For nearly 100 years, the utilization of horses for therapeutic programs has grown by leaps and bounds. Today, horses are used today to help people with physical and developmental disabilities, as well as psychiatric disorders. Several advocacy organizations dedicated to equine therapy have increased its implementation in therapeutic settings. In 1960, the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled introduced equine therapy to the U.S. and Canada. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) was established in 1969 as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association. Its primary goal is to promote equine-assisted activities and therapies for individuals with special needs. In 1996, a group of therapists formed a subsection of PATH called the Equine-Facilitated Mental Health Association. This group sponsors, promotes and organizes research on the efficacy of equine therapy in mental health settings.
In 1997, two psychotherapists published the book “Horse Sense and the Human Heart.” This publication is a comprehensive work on the benefits of equine therapy, presenting a series of case studies on troubled youth. The authors explain how horses are quick to sense pretense, thereby forcing people to rely on their instincts and be honest. An excerpt from the book states:
“Throughout history, horses have guided humans on external journeys. Horse Sense and the Human Heart reveals how horses can take us on a deeper journey – on the path to healing, awareness and spiritual and emotional growth.”
Horses have a highly developed sense of perception, making them especially adept at reading and responding to clients in a therapeutic setting. Research studies support the use of horse-assisted therapy for clients with depression, anxiety, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorders, dissociative disorders, autism, chronic mental illnesses, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. A 2007 study showed equine-assisted psychotherapy delivered a psychotherapeutic benefit in children diagnosed with adjustment disorder, mood disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and disruptive disorders. Children exposed to family violence or substance abuse showed the greatest improvement in functioning.
Equine Therapy Benefits
While programs vary, typically the goal is for clients to establish close relationships with horses. This is typically achieved by feeding and grooming them, cleaning their stalls and equipment and observing them at work and play. The healing process begins when clients learn to relate first to horses, then to their therapists and others clients in the program. Evidence shows equine therapy provides a wide array of psychotherapeutic benefits. It decreases isolation and anxiety in people with psychiatric disorders and helps increase:
- Confidence and self-esteem
- Emotional awareness
- Trust in oneself and others
- Perspective and empathy
- Impulse control
- Social skills
- Ability to set boundaries
- Creative freedom
- Spiritual growth
- Problem-solving skills
- Expression of feelings, needs, hopes and desires
- Processing and sharing difficult emotions and experiences
Clients learn invaluable lessons about respect, empathy and communication through their work with horses, which helps them on the path to recovery.
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