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Updated on December 2, 2022

What is Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy (also known as EAP or horse therapy) uses horses for mental health treatment. They offer horse-related activities, including feeding, brushing, riding, and leading.

Besides horse and patient, a horse trainer and a licensed equine therapist are also involved. An equine therapist may have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in animal science or counseling. They may also have professional certifications. 

This therapy aims to help people develop skills such as: 

  • Emotional regulation
  • Self-confidence
  • Responsibility.

How Does Equine Assisted Therapy Work?

Horses have a natural ability to pick up on human emotions. They have unique personalities and can experience emotions.

Horses can analyze and react to human body language. This provides people with valuable feedback about themselves and showcases traits like:

  • Self-awareness
  • Trust
  • Leadership
  • Patience
  • Affection
  • boundaries

Riding horses can also help you develop empathy and teamwork.

Interacting with horses requires non-verbal communication, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills. This can help address various mental, emotional, social, behavioral, sensory, and physical needs.

What Conditions are Treated By Equine Assisted Therapy?

Conditions that equine-assisted therapy is an effective mental health treatment for: 

  • Depression
  • Anxiety 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Attention deficit disorder (ADD)
  • Addiction
  • Trauma
  • Eating disorders

Types of Equine Assisted Therapy (EAP)

Here are some of the different types of equine-assisted therapy: 

Horse Therapy (Therapeutic Riding)

Therapeutic riding involves learning riding techniques, which help build trust and rapport between you and the horse. Therapeutic riding helps you gain various cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits.  

Learning to control a horse while riding teaches 

  • Confidence
  • Self-esteem
  • Coordination
  • Balance

Hippotherapy

Unlike therapeutic riding, where horse-specific skills are taught, hippotherapy focuses on using the horse’s movement as treatment. The sensory input from a horse’s natural gait has various benefits for patients with neuromotor and sensory dysfunction issues.

While a handler leads a horse through different tempos, gaits, and cadences, the rider must adjust their posture and engage different muscles.

Hippotherapy can be used as a form of speech, physical, or occupational therapy. Equine-assisted therapy has also been successfully used as a treatment for cerebral palsy.5

Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL)

EAL uses horses in an educational context to help people develop life skills. EAL uses trained facilitators and horses to help with anxiety and behavior problems. 

Interacting with these horses through various activities can help improve:

  • Resilience
  • Social skills
  • Personal and professional development
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Self-confidence

Unlike horse therapy and hippotherapy, there is no riding involved in EAL. This means that the horses are carefully chosen to be safe to be around.

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

Equine-assisted psychotherapy involves collaboration between a therapist and a horse trainer. Together, they use horses to treat patients with psychological disorders. 

The mental health therapist will work with the client through several sessions to discuss their feelings and behavior patterns that working with horses can bring to light. 

Issues that have been treated by this unique form of psychotherapy include:

  • Grief over a passed loved one
  • Stress and PTSD
  • Anger management
  • Substance abuse
  • Relationship problems

Other Animal-Assisted Therapies

Other animal-assisted therapies include dogs, cats, and all kinds of domesticated animals to help people recover from or better cope with health problems. This includes everything from anxiety and depression to heart disease and cancer.1

Animals provide comfort and joy. Many studies show that animals’ presence can lift people’s spirits and help diminish their discomforts.9

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Benefits of Equine Therapy

Equine therapy provides various physical and mental benefits. These benefits include

  • Increased trust
  • Selflessness
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Less feeling of depression and isolation
  • Increased self-esteem and self-acceptance
  • Improved social skills
  • Better impulse control
  • Increased problem-solving skills
  • Improved communication skills, including non-verbal
  • A better understanding of healthy boundaries 
  • Learning to nurture another creature

Equine therapy can also be used to treat addiction and mental illness.

Benefits of Equine-Assisted Therapy for Addiction

Anyone suffering from addiction may benefit from equine-assisted therapy. Research shows that spending time with animals can lower stress hormones and provide comfort.9 

Here is how people with addiction can benefit from equine-assisted therapy.

  • Alcoholism: Lower stress and higher endorphins promote a clearer mind; EAP helps avoid mental and emotional triggers
  • Drug Addiction: EAP provides comfort, joy, and empathy, encouraging sobriety and motivating change

Benefits of Equine-Assisted Therapy for Mental Health

Anyone suffering from mental health issues may also benefit from equine-assisted therapy.

Here is how equine-assisted therapy can benefit people struggling with mental illness:

  • Anxiety: Research shows that interaction with animals, like horses, can reduce anxiety10
  • Depression: Horses can understand emotions and mirror moods, allowing them to relate to a person and helping decrease depression10
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): Working with horses is like experiential therapy; EAP gives a person a sense of control6

Is Equine-Assisted Therapy Right for Me?

There are various factors to consider when exploring equine-assisted therapy for yourself or a loved one. Always consider your physical ability and overall health.

If you have scoliosis or spina bifida, speak with your doctor before attempting equine therapy.

Timing

Depending on the challenges you or a loved one are experiencing, the timing may not be suitable for equine therapy.

Someone with an addiction should detox and establish compliance with a treatment program before starting equine-assisted therapy.

Fear

Although it can help treat anxiety, a patient may initially fear being around a large horse. As such, they may not feel motivated to use this type of treatment.

Some people also have past trauma involving animals. It can prevent them from wanting to participate.

Dangers

People interested in equine therapy should be aware of some potential dangers. Usually, these pertain to the size and weight of most horses.

Horses trained as therapy animals are less likely to display fear or aggression, but it's still possible. Some patients could also experience allergic reactions to horses or their environments (ex: dust, hay, etc.).

If you have health problems related to the animals or the environment, speak to a physician first. You should also consider avoiding equine therapy if you have the following conditions:

  • Spina bifida
  • Scoliosis
  • Down syndrome  

Riding horses can affect spinal stability, so it's not recommended for someone with back issues.

Cost

Equine-assisted therapy is only recently growing in popularity. Because of this, it may not be covered by insurance benefits.

The price of EAP varies by area and can range in fees. It is best to contact your insurance company and your local treatment center to discuss those details in advance.

Speak with your mental health provider first to see if you or your loved one are a good fit for equine therapy. Most programs will also have an assessment procedure to establish if therapy suits you or a loved one.

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Other Treatment Options for Addiction

Other treatment options are available for anyone struggling with addiction. They can be combined with equine-assisted therapy to help anyone trying to overcome an addiction reach their goals. These options include:

Summary

Equine-assisted therapy is a method of treatment that uses horses for mental and physical therapy. There are four types of EAP which include:

  • Horse therapy
  • Hippotherapy
  • Equine-assisted learning
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy

Animals are capable of lowering stress and improving mental health. Horses are adept at relating to humans because they can understand and mirror human emotions.

EAP can be beneficial to people struggling with addiction and mental illness. Before exploring EAP, you should carefully consider if is a good option for you

Call to find out how much your insurance will cover
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Resources

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  1. Cherniack, P., and Ariella C. “The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals.” Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research, 2014.
  2. Frye, Devon. “Equine Assisted Therapy: A Unique and Effective Intervention.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2019.
  3. A Global Standard in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Personal Development.” Eagala.
  4. Park et al. “Effects of Hippotherapy on Gross Motor Function and Functional Performance of Children with Cerebral Palsy.” Yonsei Medical Journal, 2014.
  5. Shelef et al. “Equine Assisted Therapy for Patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Series Study.” Military Medicine, 2019.
  6. Smith, Cher. “Industry Links.” EAS Definitions.
  7. Trask, L. “Helping with Horses: Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2010.
  8. White, Lewis, S. “Equine‐Assisted Therapies Using Horses as Healers: A Concept Analysis.” Nursing Open, 2019.
  9. Wilson et al. “Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy for Adolescents Experiencing Depression and/or Anxiety: A Therapist’s Perspective.” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2016.

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