Horses and Mental Health: How Equine Therapy Works
Pets have been a part of our lives for thousands of years. Some of the earliest reports of pet-facilitated therapy date back to the 17th century when John Locke advocated giving children “dogs, squirrels, birds or any such thing to look after as a means of encouraging them to tender feelings and a sense of responsibility for others,” or in 18th century England where pets were used as positive reinforcement to help patients learn to care for themselves. Since that time, pet therapy has been used for a wide variety of conditions, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, various childhood emotional disturbances, in skilled nursing facilities, on long-term care floors in hospitals, and with the inmate population-to name a few.
Several addiction and mental health treatment centers use equine therapy to help individuals improve their physical and emotional well-being by working with the horses, taking care of them, and often learning to ride them. For some individuals, these experiences help to build core muscle strength and improve daily functioning. For others, the simple peace and relaxation offered by being around such a graceful animal allows for assistance with the reduction of anxiety or depression symptoms that feed worsening mental health conditions or substance use disorders.
What is Equine Therapy?
Equine therapy or equine-assisted therapy uses horses as part of the therapeutic model. Depending on the program and nature of the treatment, participants may engage in activities involving the horses, such as feeding, leading, and grooming while accompanied by a member of their treatment team. The goals of equine therapy involve helping individuals seeking to overcome mental health or addiction conditions develop vital coping skills such as emotional regulation, responsibility, and self-confidence.
Horses can go a long way in helping individuals who struggle with mood disorders, emotional regulation, and even anger develop self-control. All of these large and majestic animals are highly patient; they are often not tolerant of individuals who shout or show aggression. Therefore, it is not uncommon for individuals participating in equine-assisted therapy to learn quite quickly that kindness, patience, and the caring touch often go much further. Although equine-assisted therapy is still a relatively new approach to many forms of treatment, it is rapidly growing in popularity due to developing evidence of its effectiveness across a wide range of conditions.
Who Can Benefit From Equine Assisted Therapy?
A significant benefit to equine-assisted therapy is that it can be used across a variety of conditions with people of all ages and demographics. This allows the therapy model to be integrated into multiple therapeutic settings, including mental health and addiction treatment. Depending on the treatment center, horses may be involved in treatment and counseling sessions with families, groups, individuals, children, and adults. An important note, however, is that equine-assisted therapy is often considered an alternative treatment, and therefore, it is not a standalone treatment model used to address mental health or addiction disorders. It is often used in conjunction with evidence-based treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy to achieve a more holistic and well-rounded treatment approach.
Equine therapy is also (often) less intimidating than the traditional psychotherapy or talk therapy model. Instead of participating in therapy sessions inside a therapist’s office, equine therapy brings people outdoors into nature. Because equine therapy utilizes an outdoor environment, it offers the opportunity for adults and children alike to access all of their senses and emotions while working to address the emotional struggles that lie at the root of their mental health or addiction-related disorders. In addition, young children seeking help to overcome certain mental health conditions may find it difficult to process or open up to a stranger about painful emotions and experiences. The equine-assisted approach allows children (and people of all ages) to address emotional challenges and symptoms, including competence, empathy, impulse control, problem-solving skills, social skills, trust, and developing and maintaining healthy relationships.
How Equine Therapy Works: The Benefits of Horses in Treatment
Horses are not the only animal used in animal-assisted therapy models. However, horses bring specific unique elements to the therapeutic process not typically found in other species. These particular traits unique to horses help improve positive treatment outcomes in many who seek out an alternative therapy option such as equine-assisted therapy.
First, horses are unbiased and non-judgmental. Although humans, especially professional therapists at a skilled treatment center or like medical aid, strive to offer a safe and supportive place for clients of all ages to explore the roots of mental health and addiction disorders, clients may still struggle to speak freely and open up about their thoughts and emotions. The process of building a healthy working therapeutic relationship between a client and therapist can take time. In some cases, the amount of time it requires to achieve this goal is more time than the actual course of treatment. Equine-assisted therapy does not require the same type of client-patient relationship. Horses provide a sense of peace and relaxation. In general, their reactions to clients’ promotions in behaviors are not judgmental and non-threatening. Although horses are capable of feeling and expressing the emotion, they are incapable of appearing condescending, which allows patients to feel more comfortable in their presence.
As noted above, horses are observant. They are sensitive to movements, emotion, and perceived aggression. If an individual who is working with a horse conveys hostility, irritability, or aggression, the horse may respond in kind. In general, horses mirror clients’ behavior or emotions. This emotional connection conveys understanding and a sense of “sympathy” that allows clients to feel safe in their therapy sessions. It also provides clients the opportunity to learn more about self-awareness. By using the horses’ behavior and interactions as a form of feedback, it gives the clients opportunities to check in with their emotions and behaviors to better understand what is happening and the emotions that they are displaying in the moment. This can help them better keep their emotions in check and learn healthier ways to express their feelings and emotions once treatment ends.
Another benefit to horses is that they require work to care for. To keep a horse happy and healthy, they require food, water, exercise, and grooming. For some patients, that being the source of this type of care for the horse helps to establish healthy routines and structure. The process of nurturing and caring for something else can help them learn to foster feelings of empathy and compassion for other creatures. This can be highly beneficial for individuals struggling with certain mental health conditions where apathy and compassion for others are challenging. It can also be helpful for individuals struggling to overcome substance use disorders who need to develop healthy, safe routines that do not involve drugs or alcohol.
Equine therapy has proven beneficial for addressing several mental health conditions and substance use disorders. Some of the most common conditions include various types of anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma, disordered eating, developmental disorders, behavioral disorders, substance use disorder treatment, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Equine Assisted Therapy-Important Considerations
As beneficial as equine-assisted therapy can be, there are important separations to keep in mind when looking at this kind of therapy for yourself or a loved one. First, it is essential to consider you or your loved ones’ physical capabilities. Horses are large animals. When full-grown, some weigh well over 1200 pounds. If you struggle with specific physical health struggles or back-related health issues, it is vital to speak to your primary care provider or have a conversation with your mental health provider at The Meadowglade to determine if equine-assisted therapy is a good fit for your treatment program.
It is also important to consider where you or your loved one are in their treatment program. If addiction and substance use issues are a concern, it is vital to begin and complete a comprehensive detox program before beginning an equine-assisted therapy program. This is important for the safety of the horse and the patient.
Another vital consideration is fear. Although equine-assisted therapy can be highly beneficial across many conditions, not all individuals are comfortable around such large animals. It is important to work closely with your mental health or addiction treatment provider to determine if equine-assisted therapy is right for you before choosing a program that specifically involves this type of therapy.
Equine-assisted therapy can be a beneficial component of many comprehensive treatment plans. Depending on one’s unique treatment needs and goals, including equine therapy as part of a comprehensive program can provide an opportunity to learn vital life skills, which can be vital as part of trigger and behavior management after treatment ends. However, equine-assisted therapy is not for everyone, and it is not designed as a stand-alone treatment. Whether you are seeking help to overcome a substance use disorder, a mental health condition, or a dual diagnosis, it is essential to complete a comprehensive program that offers evidence-based treatments in addition to alternative options.
At The Meadowglade, our professional treatment team will work with you to design a treatment plan focused on your specific needs and goals as you work towards physical, psychological, and spiritual wellness. If incorporating equine therapy into your treatment program is of interest to you and you would like to learn more about how equine therapy is used at The Meadowglade, please contact us today. Our admissions team is here to help you learn more about all of our mental health and addiction treatment programs.
Parshall, D. (2003). Research and reflection:Animal-assisted therapy in mental health settings. Counseling and Values, 48, 47-56.
Altshhuler Ph.D., E. L. (1999). Pet-Facilitated Therapy for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, 11 (1), 29.