Updated on February 6, 2024
7 min read

Equine-Assisted Therapy: Benefits, Types, and Is It Right for Me?

What is Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy incorporates horses into the therapeutic process. You engage in horse-related activities, including grooming, feeding, and riding, while a horse rider and mental health professional supervise therapy sessions.

Horses have a natural ability to pick up on human emotions. They have unique personalities, can experience emotions, and can analyze and react to human body language. 

This makes equine-assisted therapy effective in helping you experience and develop the following skills:

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Emotional growth
  • Self-awareness
  • A focus on well-being
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Social skills
  • Leadership skills
  • Patience
  • Affection
  • Trust

The History of Equine Therapy

Equine-assisted therapy dates back to when horses were involved in therapeutic riding in ancient Greek literature in 600 B.C. It gained prominence in Scandinavia in 1945 as a response to a polio outbreak. It was introduced in 1960 in North America primarily for treating disabled people.

hand of a man touching a horses face scaled

What are the Benefits of Equine Therapy for Drug Addiction?

Equine-assisted psychotherapy offers an innovative approach to addressing drug addiction and related mental health issues.

  • Trust building: Interactions with horses can foster a sense of trust
  • Emotional safety: You develop a sense of security and bond with the horses
  • Calming effect: Horses can soothe, elevate mood, and decrease stress
  • Enhanced social skills: With professional guidance, you can become more socially adept and open
  • New focus: Equine therapy provides those recovering from substance abuse a different perspective, promoting healthier behaviors
  • Responsibility and routine: You learn accountability and establish consistent routines
  • Comprehensive treatment: When combined with counseling and talk therapy, equine therapy helps you introspect and envision a better future

What Conditions Can Equine Therapy Address?

Equine-assisted therapy helps manage several mental health issues. Here are a couple of mental health disorders that horse therapy can help with:

1. Anxiety

Anxiety affects over 40 million American adults aged 18 and over.1 Though many face occasional anxiety, some grapple with clinical levels that profoundly impact their lives. 

A common trait among those with anxiety is dwelling on the past and fearing the future. Engaging with horses can help you remain in the present.

Horses, being sensitive to emotions and behaviors, can quickly detect threats and may change their behavior in response. This intuitive reaction to danger is something many anxious people can resonate with.

2. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD often stems from traumatic events, with combat veterans and sexual assault survivors being especially vulnerable.2 Equine therapy has gained prominence as a treatment for PTSD. 

While many with the condition fear they can't form personal connections again, bonding with horses can foster emotional growth. This progress can subsequently enhance their relationships and overall lives.

Around seven to eight percent of the United States population will experience PTSD at some point in their lives.

U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2019

3. Depression

Equine therapy can help alleviate symptoms of depression by increasing self-esteem and social skills. It also provides a focus on well-being.

The bond you form with horses can also provide comfort and companionship for those struggling with loneliness and isolation. Additionally, the physical activity of caring for horses can release endorphins and improve overall mood.

4. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD can make it difficult to focus and control impulsive behaviors. Interacting with horses requires patience, concentration, and focus, which can help improve these symptoms.

Horses also provide a non-judgmental environment for those struggling with ADHD to practice social skills and build self-esteem. Additionally, the structured nature of equine therapy sessions can help develop routines and enhance problem-solving skills.

5. Addiction

Equine therapy can be a useful tool in addiction recovery by helping develop trust, emotional safety, and responsibility. By establishing new routines and focusing on positive behaviors, equine therapy can aid in breaking destructive patterns and promoting overall well-being.

It can also serve as a form of stress relief and emotional support during recovery. Likewise, forming a bond with horses can provide a healthy and fulfilling outlet for those struggling with addiction.

6. Trauma

Equine therapy has become increasingly popular in treating trauma due to its ability to foster trust and emotional safety. Moreover, it strongly promotes healing.

Horses provide a sense of control for those who've experienced traumatic events, helping you regain confidence and self-esteem. The physical aspect of caring for horses can also serve as a grounding technique for managing symptoms of trauma.

7. Eating Disorders

Equine therapy can also aid in addressing eating disorders by promoting self-awareness and improving body image. Horses accept you without judgment, creating a safe space for those struggling with body image issues.

The physical aspect of caring for horses can also help improve feelings of control. It also decreases anxiety around food and body image.

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What are the Types of Equine-Assisted Activities?

Equine-assisted activities are any specific activities that involve the use of horses for therapeutic value. Equine-assisted activities include grooming, stable management, shows, parades, demonstrations, and more.

1. Therapeutic Horseback Riding

Therapeutic horseback riding involves riding a horse with a trained therapist to improve physical, emotional, or cognitive function. The movement of the horse stimulates muscles throughout your body, enhancing overall strength, coordination, and flexibility. Additionally, this activity promotes improved balance, posture, and core stability. It also provides emotional and psychological benefits, such as increased self-confidence, reduced anxiety, and enhanced social interactions.

2. Hippotherapy 

Derived from the Greek word "hippos" or horse, hippotherapy employs equine movement as a therapeutic intervention. It’s a physical, occupational, or talk therapy treatment.  

The following health professionals often use equine therapy treatment:

  • Occupational therapist
  • Physical therapist
  • Speech and language pathologist
  • Equine therapist

Hippotherapy addresses impairments, disabilities, functional limitations, and disabilities in people with neuromotor and sensory dysfunction. Those with cerebral palsy often benefit from this treatment.

3. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

Equine-facilitated psychotherapy is an interactive mental health treatment. It targets trust, self-esteem, group cohesion, communication skills, personal confidence, and establishing boundaries and limits.

4. Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL)

Equine-assisted learning is an experimental treatment for growth and development. The process encourages the development of life skills for educational, professional, and personal goals through equine-related activities. 

5. 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.3

Animals provide comfort and joy. Many studies show that animals’ presence can lift people’s spirits and help diminish their discomforts.4

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Is Equine-Assisted Therapy Right for Me?

Consider these factors when exploring equine-assisted therapy for yourself or a loved one:

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, you may initially fear being around a large horse. As such, you 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

Those 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 could also experience allergic reactions to horses or their environments, such as dust and hay.

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  

Cost

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

The price of EAP varies by area and can range in fees. It’s 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 equine-assisted therapy programs also have an assessment procedure to establish if therapy suits you or a loved one.

Summary

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

  • Therapeutic horseback riding
  • Hippotherapy
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy
  • Equine-assisted learning

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, carefully consider if it’s a good option for you.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
9 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Anxiety Disorders - Facts & Statistics.” Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2022.
  2. PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 2023.
  3. Shelef et al. “Equine Assisted Therapy for Patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Case Series Study.” Military Medicine, 2019.
  4. Naste et al. “Equine Facilitated Therapy for Complex Trauma (EFT-CT).” Journal of Child & Adolescent Trauma, 2017.
  5. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” MedlinePlus, 2022.
  6. Jang et al. “Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapy for Treating Children with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 2015.
  7. Trotter et al. “A Comparative Study of the Efficacy of Group Equine Assisted Counseling with At-Risk Children and Adolescents.” Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 2008.
  8. Hauge et al. “Equine-Assisted Activities and the Impact on Perceived Social Support, Self-Esteem and Self-Efficacy among Adolescents – an Intervention Study.” International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 2013.
  9. Kern-Godal et al. “More than Just a Break from Treatment: How Substance Use Disorder Patients Experience the Stable Environment in Horse-Assisted Therapy.” Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, 2016.

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