Animals have been a part of therapy methods in the United States for at least a century. Evidence shows, however, that human-animal relationships as therapy go back for millennia. Under the broader category of animal-assisted therapies (ATA), one of the most successful has been with equines, and the most well-known types of equines are horses and ponies.
Introduced in the 1960s in the US, equines were brought into assisted therapy for physical, mental, and emotional healing. The benefits were noted immediately but were not subjected to systematic study until the last few decades.
Equine-assisted therapy serves as the umbrella term for a number of different ways horse-related activities and treatments that can promote overall health. There are many different types equine therapies, but the common factor between them all is the interaction between the individual and the horse.
Since equines are not easily distracted or startled by sudden movements or noises, their calm demeanor makes the individual feel at ease. Their large size and physical sense of steady presence also makes them figures of stability, confidence, and inspire a feeling of strength.
Horses are also known to be some of the most emotionally-perceptive animals. In addition to perceiving body language signaling agitation or discomfort, equines can detect emotional needs. By being able to notice anger, sadness, and fear, equines create a safe place of expression and nonjudgment for the individual.
Sensing human emotions also allows the horse to express its own fear in response to the individual, creating a sort of mirror for emotional observation. If the horse senses fear or feels threatened, it may act afraid or try to remove itself from the perceived threat. By noticing equine behavior, therapy patients may be willing to discuss fear and anxiety in a context that doesn’t feel “all about them” while also holding them accountable in a safe relationship.
Since horseback riding can develop balance, improve core and back strength, and rotate the pelvic base, equine therapy is a low-impact way to assist those with physical disabilities or physically limiting diseases. Horseback riding also requires focused attention to one’s body and surrounding, which can help develop skills for those with learning disabilities or attention disorders.
Mental health professionals also implement equine-assisted therapy with patients with bipolar disorders or trauma-related issues.
For emotional therapy, horses are known to connect with humans in ways similar to domestic dogs. The patience, presence, and sense of being understood by equines builds trust and safety between the horse and the individual. Moreover, horses are bonding animals and necessitate a true “give and take” between parties, which can help those with codependent or addictive tendencies.
A number of studies have assessed the benefits and results of EAT for addiction and substance abuse. The primary benefits are cultivated in the relationship between the individual and the horse. By encouraging regular and consistent care of another creature, EAT helps develop:
Since the benefits of EAT largely depend on the relationship developed between horse and individual, equine therapy helps those in recovery experience the value of connection and relationship. And if a person is committed to their relationships and staying connected, they are much less likely to return to isolation patterns and substance abuse.
Genuine connection with animals has also proven to produce “happy chemicals” in the human brain, including serotonin, oxytocin, and prolactin. By associating mood-elevating hormones with healthy and responsible relationships, a person in recovery creates memories (both emotional and physiological) that assist in stabilizing addictive swings.
Different types of equine-assisted therapies range from casual riding that require less specialization to psychotherapy sessions that require trained specialist facilitation. Most activities with horses, if facilitated in a safe and consistent environment, can promote the benefits of equine therapy including:
Hippotherapy, which includes the Greek word for horse (hippo), is also a proven way to assist individuals with physical limitations by utilizing the natural movements of the horse. Regularly scheduled and repeated activities also improve one’s sense of growth and accomplishment, which can lead to more confidence and opportunities for healing.
Although there are many types of activities that help promote care, responsibility, and connection with others, equine-assisted therapy is one of the best ones that provides a safe place for the person to feel both needed and totally secure.