Everyone feels anxious sometimes, but many people struggle with persistent worry and fear that just won’t quit. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common illnesses in America; research shows that approximately 7.1% of children have an anxiety disorder. 

 

How Equine Therapy Can Help with Anxiety

Equine therapy is an experiential approach that can help children and adolescents who are struggling with anxiety. This treatment provides clients with a safe opportunity to work through their feelings without expectations. Let’s get into what you need to know.

Understanding Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety itself isn’t a diagnosis. Instead, it’s an umbrella term for a cluster of numerous anxiety-related conditions, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): characterized by persistent worry about many different situations. 
  • Panic disorder: characterized by persistent, recurring panic attacks and the fear of having panic attacks.
  • Social anxiety disorder: characterized by fears and worries about being in various social situations.
  • Separation anxiety disorder: characterized by recurrent and excessive stress about being away from certain loved ones or the home environment.
  • Specific phobia: characterized by intense fear over a specific place, event, or situation.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: characterized by persistent, intrusive thoughts (known as obsessions) and repetitive behaviors designed to neutralize those thoughts (known as compulsions).

It’s not uncommon for children to experience symptoms in several different disorders. Many times, the conditions overlap. It’s also important to recognize that children and adolescents struggling with anxiety may not always present with the typical manifestation of fear or worry. Instead, they may show some of the following symptoms:

  • Mood swings
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, or usual activities
  • Physical complaints (stomachaches, headaches, back or chest pain)
  • Increased pessimism
  • Declining performance in school, work, or extracurricular activities
  • Self-harm
  • Substance abuse
  • Disordered eating
  • Violence toward others

How Equine Therapy Treats Anxiety

Horses tend to mirror human emotions, and subsequently, they also tend to show similar behaviors as humans. Many times, this process is unconscious. Clients don’t necessarily recognize how the horse models similar actions and emotions, but clients do tend to identify building a sense of connection within the therapy session.

Horses also have strong survival instincts. This means that they naturally feed off the energy from their external stimuli. They know when to perceive danger and when to relax.

In some ways, this can show modeling for clients. After all, anxiety is all about the overregulation of the fight-or-flight reflex. It’s normal to feel anxious when we perceive danger, but when someone struggles with an anxiety disorder, their worldview of danger is skewed. They tend to naturally assume the worst case scenario will happen.


Equine Therapy and Metaphors for Anxiety

Equine therapy often acts as a metaphor for real-life situations. Clients will often naturally understand these metaphors because they readily identify with the horse’s responses. 

For instance, a child may witness a horse being shy or skittish, and they might then conclude how they act similarly when they feel nervous around other people. In other cases, a horse may back into its stall corner when a teenager approaches; the adolescent may relate to how they turn away when they feel attacked or ashamed. 


Sources

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/features/anxiety-depression-children.html#:~:text=Anxiety%20and%20depression%20affect%20many,1.9%20million)%20have%20diagnosed%20depression.
  2. https://www.hhs.gov/answers/mental-health-and-substance-abuse/what-are-the-five-major-types-of-anxiety-disorders/index.html