What Is Equine Therapy and What Are the Benefits?

Successful mental health treatment requires integrative and comprehensive care. Today, experiential approaches are gaining popularity within the field.

Equine therapy integrates horses into a cohesive and collaborative therapeutic process. In equine therapy, clients interact with horses while being supervised by licensed therapists and equine specialists. Through this process, they learn more about themselves and the world around them. 

This treatment can help treat a variety of issues and populations. It can also help support many traditional therapy approaches. Let’s get into what you need to know.

What Is Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy is an experiential, solution-focused treatment focused on the interaction between a horse and the client. It is collaborative and integrative. Both a licensed mental health professional and qualified equine specialist work in tandem to support the growth process. 

Unlike horseback riding or horsemanship, equine therapy solely focuses on groundwork. Clients do not ride, groom, or feed the animals. Instead, they interact with them in their habitat and engage with whatever material organically emerges.  

Equine therapy sessions tend to last for one hour. Clients meet for their session once per week, and most clients benefit from treatment that lasts 12–15 sessions. Group sessions may last around ten weeks. 

Keep in mind that it may take a few sessions for the therapy to truly “click.” At first, it’s normal to feel anxious, uncomfortable, or even bored. This is similar to most therapy methods. That said, most clients start to notice a shift after the third session. 


Understanding the Relationship Between Horses and People

It’s no secret that many people love horses. They’re majestic, gentle, and incredibly smart. When they trust someone, they tend to be loyal and affectionate. They can also provide companionship and comfort. 

By nature, horses are prey animals. That means they depend on their survival instincts to protect themselves. They are also known to be perceptive and intelligent, and because they can detect danger they tend to read human emotions quite well.

Additionally, horses know how to interpret fear. They remember negative situations, and while they can “forgive,” they don’t necessarily forget such danger. Likewise, they intuit body language within each other and within humans.

All of these qualities translate to creating a meaningful relationship with horses. That’s why so many humans gravitate toward these exquisite animals. With horses, they feel safe, protected, and loved.


What Is the History of Equine Therapy?

People have appreciated horses for their companionship and emotional health benefits for centuries. In fact, people have interacted with horses therapeutically dating back into the ancient Greek era.  

Hippocrates even wrote about the therapeutic benefits associated with horseback riding, and seventeenth-century literature cites horseback riding as an effective treatment for issues related to neurological disorders and gout. 

In 1969, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International was formed as a federally registered nonprofit. At that time, treatment primarily focused on physical health issues. Patients would engage in therapeutic horseback riding in order to relax, improve coordination, and develop a more robust muscle tone. Today, some people still use horses for improving sensory and fine motor skills related to balance and posture.

The modern use of horses for treating mental health issues goes back to the 1990s. Today, PATH and the Equine Growth and Learning Association (Eagala) represent the two main certification programs in the United States. 

Today, equine therapy is nationally recognized as a holistic mental health intervention method. Additionally, many facilities and therapists recommend this service for their clients as either a standalone or complementary treatment. 


Which Kinds of Horses Are Used?

Like humans, horses each have their own preferences and individual personalities. There is no perfect personality type for horses used in equine therapy. Some horses might be more active and outgoing, while others are more mellow or shy. Therefore, no two equine therapies look the same. 

Likewise, equine therapy treats the horse as an inherently equal partner. That means that the facilitators always take the horse’s well-being seriously. They do not expect the horses to “do anything” in the session. Instead, the facilitators (and clients) learn to embrace these creatures exactly as they are.  

Interestingly, equine therapy isn’t so much about understanding the horse. Sometimes, clients may ask qualifying questions about the horse’s name, gender, or age. This curiosity is normal, and most facilitators encounter it. 

If this happens, however, the therapist will encourage the client to come to their own conclusions to these answers. This therapy is about giving the client the opportunity to come to their own realizations and solutions.


What Kinds of Issues Can Equine Therapy Treat?

Clients participate in equine therapy for many reasons. Let’s review some of the top issues this treatment addresses. 

Confidence

It’s no secret that many children struggle with their self-esteem and self-worth. During this time, “fitting in” is an essential part of human development. If a child feels like they don’t belong, they may feel ashamed and insecure.

Feeling connected to something or someone else can help build confidence. Because horses foster companionship, this dynamic can also foster a sense of meaning within clients. 

Impulse Control

Impulse control problems can stem from anxiety, depression, and trauma. Poor impulse control may manifest as aggression, self-harm, bullying, and substance use. Most of the time, the client doesn’t want to engage in the behavior, but they also don’t know how to stop.

Working with horses allows clients to slow down, reflect, and breathe. There’s an inherent need for patience during this therapy, so you can’t rush the horse or the process. This work can model the need for implementing tolerance and acceptance into other parts of life. 

Problem-Solving Skills

Critical thinking is an important part of confidence and emotional health. It also helps clients make sound judgments and learn how to trust other people.

Equine therapy allows children and adolescents to understand cause-and-effect, and it can even enhance this skill. For example, they may realize that a certain behavior triggers the horse’s response. Likewise, they may recognize that doing something else can cause a different reaction. 

Distress Tolerance

Distress tolerance refers to the ability to sit with uncomfortable emotions. Unfortunately, we live in a society that often encourages people to suppress, numb, or intellectualize how they feel. As a result, most people don’t actually know how to cope with their distress.

Equine therapy doesn’t have an agenda. You aren’t required to “do anything.” For some people, this lack of having a specific task can be unnerving. It may bring their emotions to the center stage, and they will have to learn to sit with them.  

Social Awareness

Just like animals, horses are social creatures. They live, eat, bond, and travel together as a herd, and they rely on the resources and support from other animals to feel safe.

Humans also need social skills to succeed in life. We are not meant to brave this journey alone. Participating in equine groups or simply interacting with an animal can enhance the client’s social awareness. They need to think about skills related to boundaries, trust, and assertive communication. All of these skills transcend the equine session to apply to real-life interactions.

Anxiety

Many children struggle with anxiety disorders. Anxiety can disrupt someone’s relationships, confidence, and emotional well-being. These conditions can also make it hard to think rationally, which can perpetuate even more anxiety.

Horses can intuit anxiety. In many ways, horses also mirror human emotions, which means they may respond to or act out the anxiety a client presents. Clients may then use metaphors to describe how they relate to the horse's experience. 

Trauma

When a child undergoes trauma, they may not know how to talk, understand, or process the experience. In some cases, they act out with anger or depression. In other cases, they shut down altogether. 

Equine therapy offers a safe and compassionate treatment option for clients struggling with trauma symptoms. Unlike humans, horses hold no outward biases or judgments. A client doesn’t have to worry about “telling their whole story” or being too vulnerable. They can show up as they are.

Depression

Children and adolescents don’t always outwardly express depression in the same ways adults do. They may complain of physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. Or they might become aggressive toward others or suddenly lose interest in their school or favorite activities.

Research on depression shows that pet and animal interaction can have a positive influence on mental health. Equine therapy likely has similar effects. Being in the presence of animals can have therapeutic, calming benefits.


Equine Therapy and Family Work: What to Expect

Some people only assume family therapy happens in a structured session in an office setting. However, some of the best family work occurs in the great outdoors. Without expectations or direct probing, families often reveal their true selves. 

Equine therapy can naturally draw out family dynamics. Their interaction with the horse can reveal deeply rooted patterns, rules, and communication. For example, a parent may become controlling and tell each person what they need to do. One child may become fearful and withdraw from the conversation, and another child might argue back with their parents and do the opposite of what is asked.

It should be noted that equine therapy isn’t necessarily about “fixing” family problems. Therapy isn’t about finding cures or forcing any one person to change.

More than anything, therapy is about increasing awareness of these patterns. Family dynamics are incredibly unconscious—some members have been stuck in the same cycles for generations. Therefore, developing this insight can be the first step toward change. 


Equine Therapy and Group Work: What to Expect

Many children and adolescents benefit from group therapy. Unlike individual treatment, groups offer a unique, supportive approach. 

Groups can help clients struggling with issues related to:

  • Self-esteem
  • Healthy relationships
  • Poor attachment to others
  • Trauma
  • Grief and loss
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger issues

Groups offer a safe and non-judgmental space for clients. Being around other people reminds them that they aren’t alone in their struggles. The group can provide encouragement and strength during difficult times. 

Equine therapy groups promote social awareness and healthy relationships between clients. These groups can be beneficial for both individual and relational growth. 

Clients have to learn how to communicate with one another to get their needs met. By interacting with horses and with each other, clients learn about the influential power of healthy relationships, assertive and congruent communication, and adaptability. 


What Are Common Misconceptions About Equine Therapy?

The mental health field hasn’t researched equine therapy as extensively as some of the more well-known therapy modalities. Therefore, some people don’t fully understand how it works. Let’s unpack some of the common myths.

You Have to Talk About Your Feelings

Equine therapy isn’t a processing therapy. As mentioned, there isn’t an agenda for what you need to do during the session. You don’t have to talk at all if you don’t want to talk. 

That said, most people find themselves feeling more comfortable sharing their feelings when they aren’t in a confined space. Because there is no pressure, clients may feel more open and relaxed. The horse can provide a welcoming discussion topic to start talking about their needs. 

You Can Play With or Ride the Horses

As mentioned, equine therapy consists of groundwork. While horseback riding and horsemanship can provide emotional benefits, this therapy doesn’t employ either of those things.

Instead, equine therapy focuses on the interaction between the horse and the client. You can observe, interact, and safely engage with the horse. You can also talk about what you see the horse doing or how you imagine the horse might be feeling. 

You Can Engage in Equine Therapy If You Like Horses

Equine therapy isn’t just about liking horses. In fact, some people feel nervous about working with animals before they begin the process.

Additionally, equine therapy needs to be clinically appropriate for your treatment. It’s not recommended or suitable for everyone. If equine work interests you, talk with your therapist or counselor. 

Equine Therapy Isn’t Real Therapy

Therapy itself isn’t a regulated definition. Instead, therapy is somewhat of an umbrella term referring to interventions designed to improve mental health.

Experiential therapy has gained traction in recent years for providing alternative support for clients struggling with their life circumstances. These treatments can be extremely beneficial in helping clients cope with their distress.

Equine Therapy Requires That You Understand Horses

Many clients who engage in this treatment have no previous experience with horses. It doesn’t matter how much knowledge or background you have with these animals. 

The facilitators will teach you what you need to know about how to interact with the animals. Your job is to simply show up and be open to the process of learning and growth. 

Equine Therapy Is Just About Hanging Out with Horses

Although your sessions may not seem as structured as some other therapies, your therapist will create a treatment plan for your care. Your treatment plan includes various goals, objectives, and potential barriers to your progress. This plan is vital for measuring your outcomes and treatment success. 


Who Isn’t Equine Therapy Suitable For?

As mentioned, equine therapy can support many people with many different conditions. That said, all treatments have their limitations. What works well for one person does not necessarily produce the same results for someone else.

Ultimately, a qualified treatment team will provide a referral for equine therapy. The team assesses the client’s mental health needs and treatment history before making this decision.


Final Thoughts

Equine therapy can offer a profound healing experience for individuals, families, and groups. It’s a unique experience that can benefit many people struggling with a variety of issues.

There is an intuitive and sacred connection shared between animals and people. This connection differs between that of a client and a therapist in a traditional setting.

Working with a kind and gentle giant allows children to tap into parts of themselves they may otherwise ignore or disregard.

At Idaho Youth Ranch, we are proud to offer this unique therapy option to our clients. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you or your child. 


Sources

  1. PATH INTERNATIONAL. (2011). Pathintl.Org. https://pathintl.org/
  2. The Basics of Equine Behavior | Equine Science Center. (2020). Rutgers.Edu. https://esc.rutgers.edu/fact_sheet/the-basics-of-equine-behavior/#:~:text=The%20horse%2C%20a%20prey%20animal,order%20to%20fully%20understand%20horses.
  3. Creating Caring Communities through the Human-Animal Relationship The Empathy Connection. (n.d.). Retrieved November 4, 2020, from https://www.humanesociety.org/sites/default/files/docs/empathy-connection.pdf
  4. Alleviating Anxiety, Stress and Depression with the Pet Effect. (2016). Adaa.Org. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/alleviating-anxiety-stress-and-depression-pet