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What is Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine assisted therapy (also known as EAP or horse therapy) incorporates horses to help rehabilitate patients with various needs. It’s an experiential treatment approach that involves a horse, a horse professional, a licensed therapist, and the client who partakes in hands-on equine activities.

While equine-assisted activities and therapies have evolved over the years, the use of horses and domesticated animals in medical treatments has existed since the second century. That’s because horses tend to exhibit a natural ability to pick up on human’s emotional expressions and needs.

Like humans, horses experience emotions and are both intuitive and social with unique personalities. Horses can instinctively analyze and react to human body language, providing people with valuable feedback about themselves. They can demonstrate self-awareness, trust, communication, leadership, patience, nurturance, affection, boundaries, and more, mirroring human moods without judgment or expectations.

Never mind that horses are large and not necessarily easily controllable for that reason; people need to learn to connect, empathize, and work with horses, which can translate to their relationships in life.

Clients interact with the horses by using non-verbal communication, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills. Doing so helps them address various mental, emotional, social, behavioral, sensory, and physical needs. 

Therapeutic activities include but are not limited to the following:

  • Horseback riding
  • Grooming
  • Stable managing
  • Attending horse shows
  • Watching horse parades

Mounting evidence supports that equine assisted therapy is an effective mental health treatment for patients with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder (ADD), addiction, trauma, eating disorders, and so much more. People of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from equine therapy.

Types of Equine Assisted Therapy (EAP)

Here are some of the different types of equine assisted therapy. 

Horse Therapy (Therapeutic Riding)

Therapeutic riding is an equine-assisted activity part of a therapy program that contributes to positive cognitive, emotional, and social change of the therapy patient. Learning how to control a horse while riding it teaches confidence, self-esteem, coordination, balance, posture, and also tones muscles. It creates a connection between the horse and the patient, helping the patient to build trust and rapport.

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. Animals provide comfort and joy, and a wealth of studies show that animals’ presence can lift people’s spirits and help diminish their discomforts. 

Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL)

Equine-assisted learning is an experiential learning approach that helps people develop life skills through equine activities. People interact with horses in equine-assisted learning programs to help them develop personal, professional, and social skills such as non-verbal communication and self-confidence from working with such large animals.

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

Equine-assisted psychotherapy involves a licensed mental health professional who works with an equine professional or is also an accredited equine professional. The horses they use with patients offer therapeutic value by treating psychological disorders. The mental health professional will work with the client through several therapy sessions to discuss their feelings, patterns, and behaviors that working with horses (feeding, grooming, etc.) can help bring to light. 

Hippotherapy

Hippotherapy is physical, occupational, or speech therapy work for patients with neuromotor and sensory dysfunction. The treatment program uses equine movement to address impairments, functional limitations, and disabilities. While a handler controls the horse, leading it through different tempos, gaits, cadences, and directions, the rider must adjust their posture accordingly and engage different muscles. This benefits their overall well-being.

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Benefits of Equine Therapy for Addiction

Anyone suffering from addiction may benefit from equine-assisted activities and therapies.

Alcoholism

Research shows that spending time with animals can lower stress hormones and raise endorphin levels, which can help to create a positive mental state for people. Of course, this can help anyone struggling with an alcohol addiction keep a clear mind and avoid mental and emotional triggers that may push them to drink. 

Drug Addiction

It’s well known that spending time with animals can bring people comfort and joy, helping them make smarter decisions with a clear head. It can also encourage them to stay sober, giving them a natural high so they may feel less of a need to resort to substance use. Likewise, spending time with animals, like horses that can mirror human expressions, can help people start to recognize their own behaviors and, therefore, take the initiative to change their behaviors.

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Benefits of Equine Therapy for Mental Health

Anyone suffering from mental health issues may also benefit from equine-assisted activities and therapies.

Anxiety

Research suggests that interaction with animals like horses can reduce human levels of physiological anxiety. While some people may initially be afraid of horses due to their size and power, for example, spending adequate time with a horse with the help of a trained equine specialist can diminish their fears and apprehensions. 

Depression

Depression is often the result of feeling rejected by, different from, or left out of peer groups. Because horses show unconditional acceptance and can mirror human moods in non-judgmental ways, equine-facilitated psychotherapy creates a positive connection that can help to decrease depression. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects people in different ways. And, often, dealing with an animal that you cannot control in their equine environment (on their turf) can be triggering for people with post-traumatic stress disorder who may feel a need to dictate their situations. Working with a horse through this kind of experiential therapy can help to alleviate that need.

Factors to Consider

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 suffer from scoliosis, spina bifida, or another back-related problem, speak with your doctor before trying equine therapy.

Timing

Depending on the challenges you or a loved one are experiencing, the timing may not be suitable for equine assisted therapy. When someone has an addiction, they will need ample time to detox and establish compliance with an appropriate treatment problem before starting equine assisted therapy services.

Fear

Although equine assisted therapy can help treat anxiety, a patient may fear being around a large horse. Their stature alone may be a worry for some people. As such, they may not feel motivated to use this type of treatment.

Some people also have traumatic memories involving animals that would prevent them from wanting to participate.

Dangers

People interested in equine assisted therapy should be aware of some potential dangers posed by the activity. Usually, these dangers link to the size and weight of most horses. While horses trained as therapy animals are less likely to introduce any risk to riders due to fear or aggression, it is possible.

Additionally, some patients experience allergic reactions to horses or their environments. For example, toward the barn dust or hay. These individuals should be exercise caution when considering equine therapy.

Those with health problems such as spina bifida, scoliosis, or down syndrome must speak with a physician before their first experience with equine assisted therapy. Riding horses can affect spinal stability, so it is not usually recommended for someone with back issues.

Cost

Equine assisted therapy is only recently growing in popularity and gaining notice as an effective treatment for mental health and substance abuse. Because of this, this treatment may not be covered by insurance benefits.

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

It is always essential to speak with an expert mental health provider to understand if you or your loved one are a good fit for equine therapy. Most programs will have an assessment procedure to establish if equine assisted therapy is suitable for you or a loved one before starting any treatment.

Other Treatment Options for Addiction

There are other treatment options available for anyone struggling with addiction. The following can be combined with an equine assisted form of therapy to help anyone trying to overcome an addiction reach their goals:

  • Drug and alcohol detoxing
  • Medication-assisted treatment
  • Interventions
  • Biofeedback therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
  • 12-step programs
  • Support groups

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Resources

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“Equine Assisted Therapy: A Unique and Effective Intervention.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 23 Mar. 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/helping-kids-cope/201903/equine-assisted-therapy-unique-and-effective-intervention

Equine-Assisted Therapy (HEARTS Project), www.gilinstitute.com/services/treatment/hearts.php

“A Global Standard in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Personal Development.” Eagala, www.eagala.org/model

“Helping With Horses: Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 20 Oct. 2010, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wild-thoughts/201010/helping-horses-equine-assisted-psychotherapy-eap

Smith, Cher. “Home.” EAAT Definitions, www.pathintl.org/resources-education/resources/eaat/193-eaat-definitions

Team, GoodTherapy Editor. “Equine-Assisted Therapy.” Equine–Assisted Therapy, GoodTherapy, 12 Nov. 2017, www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/equine-assisted-therapy

“Therapy Dogs Bring Joy and Healing.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 1 Aug. 2018, www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/pet-therapy/art-20046342

White-Lewis, Sharon. “Equine-Assisted Therapies Using Horses as Healers: A Concept Analysis.” Nursing Open, John Wiley and Sons Inc., 27 Sept. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6917924/

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