Equine therapy is a growing trend when it comes to treating issues of mental health with the most common issues being depression, anxiety, grief, and PTSD. Young people who are having trouble with the law or substance abuse have also showed good results from equine therapy. Horses, not being predators, have a calm and gentle personality. Many believe they can mirror our emotions and that they are naturally intuitive. The bond you can develop with a horse is like no other friendship.
Horse riding as a form of therapy is quite old, dating back to ancient Greece. Benefits of equine therapy have been described in 17th-century literature, where it’s said that therapeutic riding was prescribed for neurological disorders and poor morale.
Modern hippotherapy has its roots in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, where it was used during the 1960s along with traditional therapy. With physiotherapist and horse handler present, a specially trained horse was used to help patients with injuries and impaired motor skills.
The American Hippotherapy Association was formed in 1992 in the United States, establishing the official set of standards for practice, as well as requirements for therapists.
There’s a single term to encompass every form of horse therapy and that is Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT). Within that, however, we can name several distinctive methods:
- Therapeutic horseback riding
- Equine-assisted learning
- Equine-assisted psychotherapy
- Interactive vaulting
- Therapeutic carriage driving
- Equine-assisted activities
It’s important to note that these therapies are not designed or intended to replace more commonly used treatments. They can, however, be used together with traditional forms of therapy to get the best results. EAAT has shown good results with individuals suffering from neurological diseases, cerebral palsy, and disorders with balance and movement problems. It has turned out that rhythmical gait of a horse moves the rider's pelvis in the same rotation and side-to-side movement that happens during walking. In the end, this leads to improved balance, coordination, flexibility, and better posture.
One case where horse therapy shows promise is dealing with bullying. Common among children, bullying been taken more seriously as a problem in recent years, and with a good reason. Many might dismiss it as “normal” behavior for children, but, if left unchecked, it can cause serious issues for the victim. Dr. Liefooghe from the University of London developed a new project where a group of children is motivated to work together with a herd of horses to complete certain tasks. This resulted in new-found confidence and a sense of teamwork. Ultimately, a majority of children experienced an attitude change, saying they will no longer tolerate being a victim of bullying.
Liz Hartel from Denmark is a shining example of equine therapy and dedication. Polio left her paralyzed from the waist down, but with therapy, she won the silver medal for dressage in the 1952 Olympic Games, even though she had to be helped when mounting her horse.
Another good example is Lauri Walker, who turned to equine therapy after a string of abusive relationships. Standard therapy didn’t work for her, but friendship with horses did. She feels that her favorite horse, Whiskey, understands her emotions. She can tell him all her secrets, and he doesn't judge. Step by step, she’s getting back her confidence, peace and joy in life. The owner of Melody Acres, a place where Lauri received her treatment, says she’s very pleased to help. She says it’s really a life skills program, and it’s all about overcoming obstacles in your life that prevent you from being happy.
Image credit: Megan Marie (with permission)