Animals can provide an extraordinary amount of emotional support to humans. Beyond the standard pet-owner relationship that the majority has lovingly experienced, animals can sometimes be used in therapeutic settings to help struggling individuals navigate their challenging emotional experiences. Different animals, such as cats, dogs, guinea pigs, and rabbits, have already been used for similar purposes. However, in recent years, the use of horses in mental therapy has gained popularity among the masses for the exceptional benefits associated with their participation. Commonly known as equine therapy or horse therapy, this particular holistic treatment has been associated with a positive impact on mental health recovery, making it a commonly offered treatment choice in most luxury rehab facilities of today.
Equine therapy is a type of mental health treatment approach that incorporates horses into the therapeutic process. People engage with horses through different activities, such as grooming and feeding them or leading them to different paths under the supervision of a mental health professional.
The goals of this type of therapy include supporting people to develop skills such as self-confidence, responsibility, and emotional regulation. As the therapy involves mature horses weighing between 900 to 2000 pounds, some people may find it intimidating to be close to such a majestic creature. However, the treatment has been only growing in popularity because of a significant amount of evidence validating its effectiveness.
Although experts have been using different types of animals in psychotherapy, horses come with certain unique traits that make them a top choice for this process. Some of these traits that make equine therapy a success include:
Non-Judgmental and Unbiased
As much as therapists do their best to offer a safe space to their clients for their emotional exploration, some people may find it difficult to share their thoughts openly. Having horses around them can provide such people a sense of peace as they only react to the client’s emotions and behaviors with no judgment or bias based on their own emotional experience.
Feedback and Mirroring
Horses have a keen observation and are sensitive and vigilant to emotion and movement. They can often mirror a person’s emotions and behaviors, conveying how they understand them and forming a connection. This also allows clients to develop a sense of self-awareness, and they may use the horse’s interactions and behaviors as feedback.
As an individual struggling with mental health disorder feels vulnerable about discussing their emotional difficulties, life transitions, and past experiences, a horse can help them find a reference point for processing. In simpler words, if a person feels that something is too painful to talk about, they can process it using the horse as an example. Externalization of the content can make things easy to approach and get through.
Some other potential horse therapy benefits include:
- Emotional awareness
- Distress tolerance
- Impulse control
- Social relationships
- Social awareness
Keep in mind that horses also require work. They need to be watered, fed, groomed and exercised. Providing this care to them can also be therapeutic for many clients and help them establish structure and routine. Moreover, practicing nurturing and caring can help them build empathy.
As suggested by evidence-based studies, equine-assisted psychotherapy can help in the management of the following conditions:
Anxiety disorders tend to affect more than 17 million Americans. Although many people experience some anxiety in their lives in normal circumstances, some may proceed to develop the clinical diagnostic criteria for this disorder. Some common examples of an anxiety disorder include:
- Specific phobia
- Social anxiety disorder
- Selective mutism
- Panic disorder
- Separation anxiety
- Generalized anxiety disorder
Many individuals who battle anxiety often find themselves stuck in worry about their past along with fear about their upcoming future. For such people, working with a horse can help them stay present and focused on their current tasks. Because horses are sensitive to emotions and behaviors, they can sense danger and heighten their awareness to respond to it, which helps them change their behavior and make an attempt to get away. People with anxiety can relate to this ability and use it to respond accordingly. Another benefit of indulging in equine therapy is that it can help people practice vulnerability in a safe place. As they learn how to interact with horses and try out new things with them, they commonly step out of their comfort zone, supporting their recovery.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD describes a condition characterized by increased reactivity and arousal, intrusive nightmares and memories, and avoidance symptoms following a traumatic event. The condition can feel severely debilitating and affect children, adolescents, and adults alike. Fortunately, people with PTSD can benefit significantly by participating in equine therapy. Experts who have worked with such people as a part of this therapy discuss how many of these patients initially believed that they would never be able to bond with someone again. However, further into the therapy, they were able to develop a personal connection with the horse and felt that connection to a significant extent. Moreover, such people can also take this connection into the rest of their lives, even into their relationships with other humans.
The problem of alcohol and drug addiction is rising in the United States. Surveys suggest that more than 70,000 people have died due to a drug overdose, which warrants effective substance abuse treatment. Equine-assisted therapy offers a different approach to treating these substance abuse disorders and all co-occurring issues, including depression, anxiety, and ADHD. The ultimate goal of a typical substance use treatment program is to help clients acquire and maintain a healthy and sober life with maximized productivity. In this recovery process, equine therapy can help them learn how to trust, practice vulnerability, and communicate effectively by spending time with horses.
Those dealing with anger issues can also benefit from animal-assisted therapies, particularly equine therapy. Since horses do not respond well to anger, such people may eventually learn to act in different ways just to elicit the desired response and move ahead in therapy. Furthermore, working with horses also encourages people to examine the root cause of their anger and learn techniques to overcome it effectively.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) refers to a condition that can particularly benefit from equine therapy. Some studies report it as appealing to adults and young individuals with this condition as it provides them with a fun, active, and hands-on experience. As a part of this therapy, clients typically spend time with a horse under the supervision of an equine specialist. The sessions may not necessarily include riding. Instead, the primary focus is on attention, presence, boundaries, social cures, mindfulness, and more. People with ADHD can get a lot of benefits by regularly engaging in equine-assisted therapy, such as:
- Increased self-esteem
- Improved adjustment to routines
- Increased self-respect
- Less stressful friendships
- Improved focus
- Reduced aggression
In equine therapy, clients understand how to make a 1,500-pound animal respond the way they want them to by simply adjusting their focus, giving them a sense of accomplishment. This sense of accomplishment, in turn, can make anyone feel significant. In the meantime, being with a horse also teaches such people how to develop trust, work towards meeting a milestone, and communicate effectively.
There are different factors to consider before deciding whether you wish to go for equine therapy. For example, it is always essential to consider overall health and physical ability before opting for it. If you have a particular condition, such as spina bifida or scoliosis, consult with a doctor before participating in a session. Other things to consider include the following:
Depending on the difficulties a person is experiencing, the timing may or may not be suitable for engaging in equine therapy. For instance, when someone is struggling with addiction, they require adequate time to detox and build compliance with their treatment program before they can engage in equine therapy for mental health.
Despite the multiple benefits associated with the use of equine-assisted therapy in the treatment of anxiety, an individual may feel scared being around a large horse or may not feel enough motivation to pursue this type of treatment. A traumatic memory involving animals may also prevent someone from opting for it.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy is growing in popularity because of its increased mental health benefits. As a result, its fee may be high and typically varies by location. A lot of insurance companies may not cover its cost; hence, it is imperative to keep your financial position in mind before going for it.
Are there any horse therapy benefits for children?
Children are as much likely to benefit from horse therapy as adults. Many children commonly find it hard to open up or get through painful experiences and emotions in a healthy way. Equine-assisted therapy offers such children to work on their issues, which may include:
Developing and maintaining relationships
How does equine therapy work?
In contrast to what most people may believe, equine therapy does not normally involve any horse riding. The participants may not even need to touch the horse to benefit from it. The therapy includes different experiences set up in a way to help clients think and act in special ways that they usually never have. These exercises typically encourage them to interact with horses, such as leading them in a certain direction or over a series of obstacles, with or without the help of a lead rope. Completing this kind of exercise requires a creative way of thinking and may force the participants to reconsider their actions. The horse experts always remain on hand to ensure everything is safe; however, they will not guide the participants about completing their tasks. Once the clients use their imaginations to complete the given tasks and exercises, a therapist will talk to them about their experiences. They will ask them to describe what they felt during the exercises and if they achieved success in their minds. These discussions further help clients learn more about their behaviors and themselves in general. With time, most clients develop strong bonds with the horses, which further help their recovery in multiple ways.
How did equine therapy begin?
The concept of using horses as therapy goes back to ancient Greek times when Hippocrates first coined the term hippotherapy or horse therapy. The technique soon became popular in Austria, Switzerland, and Germany in the 1950s as experts used horses for therapy to help people with physical disabilities. The movements of the horses were used to trigger neuromuscular changes in the patients. With time, the technique and purpose of this horse therapy evolved to include psychological therapy.
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