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Updated on November 22, 2021

What is Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy (also known as EAP or horse therapy) uses horses for mental health treatment.

The patient takes part in various 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. 

While seemingly a modern technique, knowledge of horseback riding’s health benefits go back to antiquity. 

The Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates noted horseback riding’s therapeutic potential in his writings. This is because horses have a natural ability to pick up on human emotions.

Like humans, horses experience emotions and are both intuitive and social with unique personalities.

Horses can analyze and react to human body language, providing people with valuable feedback about themselves.

They can demonstrate self-awareness, trust, leadership, patience, affection, boundaries, and more. They can also mirror human moods without judgment or expectations.

While not always easy to control, by riding horses, people can learn empathy and teamwork. This can carry over to all areas of 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.

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)

With Therapeutic riding, the patient learns riding techniques. This helps them gain various cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits.  

Learning how to control a horse while riding it teaches confidence, self-esteem, coordination, and balance. The connection between the horse and the patient helps the patient build trust and rapport.

Hippotherapy

Named after the Greek word for horse, Hippotherapy can be used as a form of speech, physical, or occupational therapy. 

Unlike therapeutic riding, where horse-specific skills are taught, here, the focus is 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.

Equine-assisted therapy has been successfully used as treatment for cerebral palsy.5

Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL)

EAL uses horses in an educational context to help people develop life skills. People interact with horses to help them develop personal, professional, and social skills such as non-verbal communication and self-confidence.

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. A wealth of studies show that animals’ presence can lift people’s spirits and help diminish their discomforts.9

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Benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy for Addiction

Anyone suffering from addiction may benefit from equine-assisted therapy. 

Alcoholism

Research shows that spending time with animals can lower stress hormones and raise endorphin levels.9 This can help anyone struggling with an alcohol addiction keep a clear mind. 

It can also help them learn to 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. It can also clear their minds, helping them make smarter decisions. By providing a natural high, it can encourage sobriety. 

By experiencing an animal’s emotional intelligence, people can recognize their own behaviors and possibly change them.

Benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy for Mental Health

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

Anxiety

Research suggests that interaction with animals like horses can reduce anxiety. While some people may initially be afraid of horses due to their size and power, adequate time under expert supervision can diminish their fears.10  

Depression

Because horses show unconditional acceptance and mirror human moods in non-judgmental ways, equine therapy can help decrease depression.10

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder affects people in different ways. Dealing with an animal in its own environment can trigger those with PTSD, who may fear a loss of control. 

Working with a horse through this kind of experiential therapy can help to alleviate that need.6

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 trying 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 that would 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. 

While horses trained as therapy animals are less likely to display fear or aggression, it's still possible.

Additionally, some patients experience allergic reactions to horses or their environments (ex: dust, hay, etc.).

These individuals should exercise caution when considering equine therapy.

Those with health problems such as spina bifida, scoliosis, or down syndrome must speak with a physician first. 

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 have an assessment procedure to establish if 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 equine-assisted 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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  1. Cherniack, E. Paul, and Ariella R. Cherniack. “The Benefit of Pets and Animal-Assisted Therapy to the Health of Older Individuals.Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research, vol. 2014, 2014, pp. 1–9.
  2. Equine-Assisted Therapy (HEARTS Project).Equine-Assisted Therapy (Hearts Project).
  3. Frye, Devon. “Equine Assisted Therapy: A Unique and Effective Intervention.Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2019.
  4. A Global Standard in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Personal Development.Eagala.
  5. Park, Eun Sook, et al. “Effects of Hippotherapy on Gross Motor Function and Functional Performance of Children with Cerebral Palsy.Yonsei Medical Journal, vol. 55, no. 6, 2014, p. 1736.
  6. Shelef, Assaf, et al. “Equine Assisted Therapy for Patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Series Study.Military Medicine, vol. 184, no. 9-10, 2019, pp. 394–399.
  7. Smith, Cher. “Industry Links.EAS Definitions.
  8. Trask, Laura. “Helping with Horses: Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 2010.
  9. White‐Lewis, Sharon. “Equine‐Assisted Therapies Using Horses as Healers: A Concept Analysis.Nursing Open, vol. 7, no. 1, 2019, pp. 58–67.
  10. Wilson, Kaitlyn, et al. “Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy for Adolescents Experiencing Depression and/or Anxiety: A Therapist’s Perspective.” Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 22, no. 1, 2016, pp. 16–33.

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Equine-assisted therapy (also known as EAP or horse therapy) uses horses for mental health treatment. The patient takes part in various horse-related activities, including...