Every horse lover knows that time spent with a horse can be soothing to the soul. Forms of horse-assisted therapy have been in use for decades and even centuries — there are records of the physical and emotional benefits of horseback riding from the times of the ancient Greeks — but now there is more interest than ever in harnessing the benefits of equine-assisted therapy to help those with physical, mental, and emotional problems.
Types of Therapy
What is equine-assisted therapy, exactly? There are a few different terms and definitions associated with the phrase. In the 20th century equine-assisted therapy focused mostly on helping those with physical impairments or handicaps; the term “hippotherapy” refers to physical rehab on horseback, utilizing the horse as the therapist. However, equine-assisted therapy has expanded to include equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), which utilizes the psychological benefits of human-horse interaction to achieve specific treatment goals. It also includes equine-assisted learning (EAL), which “emphasizes education and learning specific skills as defined by the individual or group,” according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EGALA) website.
There has been some confusion about whether or not the horse is ridden as part of the therapy; generally, mounted work is used for physical therapy and unmounted work is used for psychological therapy. However, mounted work can provide some psychological benefits and vice versa. There are equine-assisted therapy programs for veterans, troubled teens, at-risk children, people with disabilities and eating disorders, and more.
Benefits of Equine-Assisted Therapy
Equine-assisted therapy is not the only form of animal assisted therapy, but it remains one of the most popular forms because of some of the horses’ special innate qualities.
Physically, the rhythmic gait of a horse moves the rider’s body in a way that is similar to human movement. Horseback riding can help riders with physical impairments increase their flexibility, muscle strength, and balance.
Psychologically, horses have to have empathy — to feel what others feel — in order to survive, and working with them can help humans develop this quality as well. Horses are herd animals, and each horse must be cued into what the other horses are feeling in order for danger messages and other communications to be transmitted. Therefore, horses express emotion immediately and clearly. Claire Dorotik, LMFT, who works in equine assisted therapy, says that a horse acts as an “objective barometer,” giving immediate and honest feedback to a person’s emotions and behaviors.
Horses are professional nonverbal communicators, and since nonverbal components make up more than 80 percent of communication, participants in equine assisted therapy become more attuned to their own emotions and behaviors and how they affect others. Self-awareness is one of the greatest benefits of equine assisted therapy in and of itself, but participants also learn honesty, appropriate emotional expression, self-discipline, structure and realistic expectations. While working with horses, participants can build relationships of trust with the horse that can be transferred to the trainer and then to other people. They also can enjoy a respite from their own emotions and problems. Horses don’t care what people think — they don’t judge or label people. Horses treat everyone the same, and that fact can be very therapeutic to people who have been labeled as different all their lives.
Qualitative research on equine-assisted therapy is lacking — this kind of therapy is difficult to quantify, but anecdotal evidence and case studies have shown that equine assisted therapy programs can be richly rewarding for both participant and therapist alike. So how do you get involved?
Getting involved as a participant
There are equine-assisted therapy programs all over the country that cater to different needs. In a program, look for a well-qualified team, a licensed therapist, a therapist approach that suits you, and EAGALA or PATH International (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, formerly North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, or NARHA) certification. You can visit www.egala.org or www.pathintl.org to find a program near you.
Getting involved as a therapist
To get involved with equine assisted therapy, you will need EAGALA or PATH International certification. The EGALA model requires a mental health professional and an equine specialist professional in all sessions. Qualifications and certification requirements for both programs can be found on their websites, www.egala.org and www.pathintl.org.
Matt James is an avid outdoorsman and a lover of all things horse. He currently writes for the quality horse trailer supplier doubledtrailers.com.