Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) is a form of therapy that uses horses to foster emotional growth. It is particularly applied to patients with attention deficit disorder (ADD), anxiety, autism, dementia, down syndrome, depression, and other genetic syndromes and mental health issues.
Horses respond immediately to riders’ actions and behaviors, and they are also able to mirror a rider’s emotion. EAT is based on the fact that because horses behave similarly to human beings in their social and responsive behavior, it is easy for patients to develop a connection with the horse.
The aim of Equine-Assisted Therapy is to:
- Build sense of self-worth
- Build trust and self-efficiency
- Develop socialization skills
- Learn impulse control
- Improve emotional management
While riding can be part of equine therapy, the interactions between patients and horses are most important. Having patients do simple exercises such as haltering, leading, and grooming, can teach them how to treat others with respect and awareness.
During equine therapy, patients also talk about what they see and feel. Through the horse’s responses and guidance from the therapist, patients can begin to recognize the ways in which their perceptions are accurate or inaccurate, and the ways they may be projecting their issues onto others.
Does it work?
Although there is not a lot of conclusive research on the benefits of EAT, there are some studies that have emphasized its positive impact.
In a study done on adolescents, Hauge, Kvalem, Berget, Enders-Slegers and Braastada (2013) found that equine therapy enhanced adolescents’ perceived social support. The researchers attributed this finding to the calm and relaxing environment that is created in equine therapy. This shows that horses have a function not only in treatment, but also in basic psychological processes.
A recent study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense examined equine therapy as a potential treatment for members of the armed forces. In this study, researchers found that equine therapy resulted in statistically significant improvements in depression, anxiety, and trauma symptoms among adults with PTSD symptoms. However, the report concluded that there is not enough evidence to support the effectiveness and safety of equine therapy (Levine, 2016).
Despite the lack of conclusive research, equine therapy is finding its popularity amongst certain people, specifically sexual assault victims.
Most notably, Beth Behrs, actress on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls, formed a partnership with equine expert Cassandra Ogier to bring equine therapy to sexual assault victims in Los Angeles.
Behrs went to see Ogier when her panic attacks started to worsen. After taking part in Ogiers’ The Reflective Horse program, Behrs’ panic attacks receded. Ogier herself discovered equine therapy as a sexually abused child and says that, “horses mirror humans’ emotional terrain.” Some equine scientists say that this is because we share the same limbic system. Furthermore, horses are “constantly reading the environment,” says Ogier, so when they are around humans, they pick up on “biofeedback,” which consists of everything from our feelings to our intentions.
A study done by Whittlesey-Jerome (2014) showed that women who have been in abusive relationships benefit a lot from equine therapy, as it causes an increase their self-esteem as well as a decrease in depression and anxiety. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, researcher Whittlesey-Jerome also said that equine therapy allowed women in the study to “take the next step to walk away from their abusive relationships and move on with their lives because of the self-realizations they gained by participating in the eight [equine therapy] sessions.”
Check out this website to find out how to obtain an equine therapy certification, and for more information on equine therapy related to autism.
Click here to learn more about The Reflective Horse Foundation, which provides a range of equine-related services based in Topanga, California.
Learn more about Beth Behrs’ and Cassandra Ogier’s initiative, SheHerdPower, a three-day program that provides sexual assault and sexual abuse victims a weekend of equine education for women, here.
Levine, P. Department of Defense. (2016). Equine therapy to treat members of the armed forces (Report No. 6-FBD1B40). United States: Department of Defense.
Hauge, H., Kvalem, I. L., Berget, B., Enders-Slegers, M.J., & Braastada, B. O. (2013). 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, 19(1), 1-21. doi: 10.1080/02673843.2013.779587
Ross, T. (2016, December 13). How ‘2 Broke Girls’ star Beth Behrs is using equine therapy to help sexual assault victims. The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/how-2-broke-girls-star-beth-behrs-is-using-equine-therapy-help-sexual-assault-victims-955564
Vivo, M. (2011, December 12). 5 lessons people can learn from horses in equine therapy. Elements Behavioral Health. Retrieved from https://www.elementsbehavioralhealth.com/addiction-recovery/lessons-equine-therapy/
What is Equestrian Therapy? (.n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.equestriantherapy.com
Whittlesey-Jerome, W. K. (2014). Adding equine-assisted psychotherapy to conventional treatments: A pilot study exploring ways to increase adult female self-efficacy among victims of interpersonal violence. The Practitioner Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology, 3(1), 82-101.