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Alternative Patient Therapy and Horses
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Alternative Patient Therapy and Horses

When common mental or physical health therapies don’t seem to be fully engaging for people who are resistant to traditional counseling, maybe it’s time to try an alternative.

Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) includes a wide range of treatments involving horses to help people with not only mental health issues but those with physical challenges too.

Medical professionals, including speech, occupational, recreational and physical therapists, psychologists, and social workers, have been using EAT as a form of treatment for decades.

Equine therapy has been used to treat physical, emotional and mental health challenges, and include any of the following:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • PTSD
  • Substance Abuse
  • Behavioral problems
  • Relationship or interpersonal problems
  • Grief
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Learning and physical disabilities

Horse therapy sessions typically involve a horse handler and therapist, in addition to the client. How the interactions take place depend on the person and what they are trying to work on. Here are some of the benefits of equine therapy:

From a Mental Health Standpoint

With equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), activities may involve riding but also include grooming, walking, and feeding horses. This type of therapy is designed to help clients learn more about themselves, process their feelings, and discuss their behaviors during the experience.

Horses are really good at picking up on a human’s emotional cues and responding accordingly. They are objective and nonjudgmental. Horses have the power to help people feel their own power — both physically and mentally. They can make people face their fears and help put them at ease.

In combination with traditional psychotherapy, EAP may be beneficial for some children and adults alike, although quantitative studies seem to be lacking.

"It's really only possible to say with any confidence that there's empirical evidence that equine-assisted activities appear to be helpful as a complementary treatment for a range of disorders," said Alexa Smith-Osborne in an article on Everyday Health. "And for people who have not responded well to first-line treatments, it does show promise."

For example, people with anger issues learn that they can be in control through gentle behaviors, which is a must if you want to gain a horse’s cooperation. Abuse victims learn they can trust a horse. People with special needs find refuge in bonding with a horse when bonding seems to be difficult with others.

EAP is solution-based, a design that helps people grow and learn in ways they’ve never tried before. Part of the experience is being in an overall calm, peaceful environment — an important component of therapeutic healing. Likewise, horses need proper shelter from the elements, ample water, safety from predators, and good nutrition — otherwise they can become anxious. They are a lot like us if you think about it.

From a Physical Health Standpoint  

Working with horses can lower stress and reduce tension, anxiety, and anger, and as a result decrease blood pressure. These benefits can be measured and aren’t just anecdotal. Medical professionals who help patients maintain healthy lifestyles recommend daily exercise, and horseback riding is one such way to build strength and work on agility — for those with or without disabilities.

If you’re going to ride a horse, there’s no way around the physicality of it. Because of this aspect, therapists can take advantage of a variety of activities for people with physical challenges.

Hippotherapy is a therapeutic treatment that uses horseback riding to help assist those with motor, sensory and physical issues that often accompany stroke, cerebral palsy, and multiple sclerosis. The client works with the movement of the horse as a way to improve range of motion and balance, build muscle, and assist with pain management.

Hippotherapy is also used by speech and language pathologists to help those with speech challenges. Hippotherapy is defined by the American Hippotherapy Association as a “type of treatment that uses the multidimensional movement of the horse in medical treatment.”

Equine-based therapy has helped many people deal with emotional and physical challenges. The best part is it doesn’t feel like work or therapy because people often enjoy the experience of simply being around a horse. Sometimes the best therapist wears a “coat” of a different kind and has four legs.

Disclaimer: Of Horse! and sponsors do not endorse nor validate the accuracy of a blog post. Each article is the opinion of the blogger.

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