Who doesn’t like horses?  Have you ever met someone who doesn’t?  There certainly may be people out there who have a negative opinion of horses and ponies, but that sentiment is likely quite rare.  Even if you have never had any direct, personal experience with horses, you probably recognize and revere their grace and beauty.

What is equine therapy?

People have been enamored with horses for centuries.  Despite the fact that we no longer use them for transportation or for work on a large scale, horses are still very popular as pets and for recreational use.  Children adore them, and many adults do, too.  They are wonderful animals, loved by all, and it makes sense then that they would be used in many kinds of therapy.  Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) encompasses a wide range of treatments that involve activities with horses to promote human physical and mental health.   Beginning in the 1960s, horses were formally used to treat individuals with neurological diseases or disorders such as cerebral palsy, movement disorders, or balance problems.  More recently, this type of therapy has been extended to treat other types of issues, including addiction.  Read on to learn how equine therapy has helped so many, and the ways in which this innovative type of therapy can help you, too.

History of Equine Therapy

The history of equine therapy is actually many centuries long.  Horses have been used as a therapeutic aid for thousands of years.  The ancient Greeks used horses to help people with incurable diseases, and the first written mention of this was by Greek physician Hippocrates, known to many as the father of medicine.  He wrote about therapeutic riding as early as 400 BC, and as a result, one branch of equine therapy, Hippotherapy, is named for him.

Much later, in the 17th century, there are records of equine therapy being prescribed for conditions such as gout, neurological disorders, and depression.  In modern times, equine therapy really began to gain popularity worldwide in the 1950s, when Danish woman Liz Hartel, who was paralyzed due to polio, won the silver medal in dressage in the 1952 Olympic Games.  Soon after, therapists in countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland began to increasingly pair therapeutic riding with physical therapy treatment to inspire lasting neuromuscular changes in their patients.  By the 1980s,  American and Canadian therapists traveled to Germany to learn about it and bring it back to the USA.  The American Hippotherapy Association (AHA) began in 1992, and the popularity and use of this type of therapy has grown and grown since then.

Types of Equine Therapy

Many types and derivatives of equine therapy have sprung up over the years.  Some of them are specifically designed for people with physical disabilities, but many apply to people struggling emotionally and mentally as well.  Although there is little standardization within the field, causing the creation of disagreed upon definitions and similar-but-slightly-different disciplines.  Altogether, though, these therapies are all referred to as Equine Assisted Therapies (EAAT). Some of the most common branches include:

  • Therapeutic Horseback Riding is used by disabled people who ride horses to relax, develop muscle tone, coordination, confidence, and overall well-being. It often includes a certified therapeutic riding instructor and several volunteers to assist, but it may also be delivered by a non-therapist riding instructor, dependent on the severity of the client’s disabilities.
  • Hippotherapy is an intervention used by a physical therapist, occupational therapist, recreational therapist, or speech and language pathologist and is also focused on people with physical disabilities. While therapeutic riding is mostly recreational with some clinical benefits, hippotherapy is mostly clinical with some recreational benefits.  The movement of the horse affects the rider’s posture, balance, coordination, strength, and sensorimotor systems.  In hippotherapy, the horse influences the client, rather than the client controls the horse.
  • Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) can be helpful for anyone with any sort of issue. It takes an experiential learning approach to help promote the development of life skills.  EAL can be helpful for people with disabilities, people with mental health issues, people who are incarcerated, people who are suffering from depression, people who are recovering from addiction, and more.
  • Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is similar to EAL, but also includes a therapy component so that the individual may reflect upon and further process his or her experiences with the horse. Through grooming, feeding, ground exercises, and riding, clients learn about themselves and others, and works with a therapist to discuss their feelings about working with horses.  This can help clients develop social, emotional, and cognitive skills, and can help them behaviorally as well.  EAP can also be called Equine-facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP), Equine Facilitated Wellness (EFW), Equine Facilitated Counseling (EFC), and Equine Facilitated Mental Health (EFMH).

How Equine Therapy is Used in Addiction Treatment

Unfortunately, there has not yet been much research on the benefits of equine therapy, but the small amount of research that has been done looks promising.   Further, anecdotally, it seems to be quite effective.  In the realm of addiction treatment, its use is still very new.  Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), both described above, are directly and easily applicable to people working on their recovery journey.  One study from 2008 looked at a twelve-week program of Animal-Assisted Therapy in general on patients receiving treatment for anxiety, schizophrenia, affective disorders, and personality disorders found that people who engage in this sort of therapy – especially with horses – reported higher levels of self-esteem and coping ability.  Since many individuals working on their recovery discover they have a dual diagnosis with one or more of these conditions, it makes sense that this therapy would be helpful for them, too.

And it makes sense.  Horses are naturally intuitive of people’s feelings; they often sense people’s emotions – such as sadness, happiness, anger, or fear – and respond accordingly.  In this way, they can serve as a mirror that the person can use to see and understand his or her own feelings.  The person can also use his or her actions with the horses to evaluate and modify the way he or she acts with other humans.  Through the client’s work with the horse, he or she can help to develop confidence and self-trust, and also gain self-esteem through achievements in riding and communication with the animal.  And, caring for a large, loving, and mostly helpless animal like a horse can really help the individual learn about healthy relationships, and substance-free, true love, in an environment free of criticism and judgment.  All of these things are obviously exponentially beneficial for anyone working on recovery, and on self-improvement and personal growth in general.

Horses are amazing animals and the ways they can help humans are truly almost endless.  After centuries of helping people do work and get around, they are now becoming most important for the silent but giant therapy they can provide to people in need.  We are so lucky to have these enormous four-legged friends here with us on earth.  If you are interested in pursuing equine therapy, check out the following resources:

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