You remember the exhilaration (and maybe tiny bit of fear) that came with learning to ride a horse. The freedom to ride far and fast, the speed and power, the sometimes painful learning curve of reading your horse’s cues and becoming one as you ride…
Horses just have a way of capturing our attention and hearts and can even go so far as to become a part of the family. But lately, their role is expanding from rodeos, equestrian sports, and ranching, to that of helping and healing.
You understand the special connection between you and your horse - but what if this bond could be used to help work through deep held trauma, learn to regulate emotions, or even improve motor skills? This is exactly what therapists and other licensed professionals are out to prove in the field of equine therapy. Based on studies and participant outcomes, so far, the results are very positive and inspiring!
What is Equine Therapy?
Equine therapy involves interacting with trained horses to help a participant’s emotional, mental, or physical health. It is incredibly inclusive, being utilized by psychotherapists, occupational therapists and even speech language therapists, and can even be practiced in group, family, or individual therapy. Essentially though, it is a technique employed by professionals where horses are used as a tool, to guide a participant through a therapy session. Now, this can look different depending on the desired outcome or goals of a session, so let’s break it down even further into three main categories.
Equine-assisted therapy encompasses a wider range of activities such as caring for the horses (i.e. brushing, feeding, or walking them), saddling, and riding them. This is most commonly used for those suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, anxiety, depression, etc. Licensed professionals will use the horse as a support tool for the participant and they will engage in talk therapy while they interact with the horses.
Hippotherapy is used by physical, occupational, and speech language therapists to stimulate sensory, neuromotor and cognitive functions. Therapists, alongside trained equine specialists, use the movement of the horse to help patients develop their balance, sensory input, respiratory control, motor skills and so much more. Hippotherapy is usually reserved for neurological or physical conditions like cerebral palsy, autism, dementia, brain injuries, or down syndrome.
Therapeutic riding, or adaptive riding, teaches those with disabilities how to ride a horse and typically includes specialized equipment (such as saddles) and techniques to give the rider greater structural and spinal support. Research shows that as well as becoming an active rider, the benefits of riding extend to helping heal trauma and building self-esteem and confidence.
Why Are Horses an Effective Therapy Tool?
Horses are incredibly responsive, making them invaluable to the therapy process. For starters, a horse will mirror the emotions of those around them which helps a participant become more self-aware - they learn to recognize, understand, and regulate their emotions in a functional, healthy way. Secondly, the act of caring for a horse teaches a participant how to appropriately understand and express empathy as well as how to recognize and meet others’ needs. Furthermore, in the case of hippotherapy, research has shown that a horse’s gait and movements can directly influence a participant’s neuromotor inputs which is so beneficial for overall development.
Now, oftentimes the struggle is simply in identifying our needs and emotions. Horses are an excellent tool for therapists in this regard, as it provides a physical model – a direct way to explain actions, needs, and responses. Equine therapy also takes a patient out of an office setting that can sometimes create more tension and stress; it gives participants an open setting with something physical to focus on while they discuss past trauma, sort out overwhelming emotions, or attempt challenging physical tasks. The horses prove to be a very calming presence for participants during this process.
Therapy in any form, is the tough work that can all too easily be ignored or grow into this chore or burden hanging over your head. Therapy horses provide a safe space for participants to truly engage and process and improve their lives, while still inviting a little joy and connection to another being. Both research and the testimonies and progress demonstrated by participants shows the truly unique help that horses can bring to the world of therapy.
If you are curious to know more or would like to offer up your training and love of horses to help and teach others, there are plenty of resources right at your fingertips. We highly encourage you to search your area for any treatment centers or animal-assisted therapy farms for your own therapy needs or volunteer opportunities!