Anyone who has ever loved an animal, knows their transformative powers. Caring for an animal encourages you to look past your own needs, to think outside of your own shell, and brings you unconditional love. Is it any wonder that so many animals are now being used to help people grow, heal, and overcome emotional and physical obstacles in their lives? What is surprising is that horses are in the forefront of this movement.
Horses are large, intimidating animals, not easily kept in suburban areas. They are not most people’s first thought for an assistive animal. However, they do have a magic all their own which is being used very effectively for children and adults, for both physical rehabilitation and emotional help.
One of the reasons horses are at the forefront of this animal therapy movement is that in many ways their behaviors and responses are similar to humans in their social settings. Horses are prey animals. As such, they are alert, adept at reading their environment, and are in tune with the non-verbal communication given off by humans. They will quickly understand if a human around them is angry, aggressive, afraid, or even confident. They will act accordingly. This gives both the patient and the facilitating therapist immediate feedback. If the patient then alters their approach, or even just their own emotional state, the horse’s reaction will reflect it.
Horses are also non-judgemental. They accept you as you are, as long as you are not threatening to them. The magic happens when one of these beautiful, noble creatures accepts you and will work with you to complete tasks or just enjoy some time together.
This immediate reflection of behavior and emotional state, coupled with acceptance when approached correctly teaches the patient self-confidence, coordination, trust, and an understanding of how perception affects behavior.
Types of Equine Assisted Therapy
There are several types of equine assisted therapy (EAT). Each one requires trained therapists or facilitators and provides different benefits for the participant.
Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) is defined as a form of experiential therapy using horses. It is conducted by a state licensed therapists, often working with an equine specialist. This type of therapy is effective for mental and emotional difficulties including PTSD, addiction, depression, and abuse issues. Riding is sometimes included in the therapy, but usually includes simple interactions, grooming, feeding, walking, and games.
Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) uses horses to facilitate learning of life skills for attaining educational, professional, and personal goals. As herd animals, they are very adept at working together while maintaining individuality. In EAL classes, horses can help teams and individuals practice leadership skills and teamwork. Many providers have specific programs already planned out while others will tailor classes for a business or individual to explore specific problem areas.
Hippotherapy is a physical, occupational or speech therapy which uses the movement of a horse to provide input. The sensory input received from the horse’s movements create neurological changes in the patient, improving balance, motor skills, flexibility, and strength.
Therapeutic Riding is a generalized term covering most riding activities done for therapeutic reasons. It is usually supervised by a riding instructor often under the direction of a hippotherapist.
Qualities of a Therapy Horse
Just like not every human is cut out to be a therapist, not every horse is either. There are specific characteristics needed for a therapy horse. Often people will want to donate animals to programs or recommend that a rescue horse is used. Unfortunately, these are not always the best fit. Because horses are so large and sentient beings with the ability to make their own choices, safety must always be the first consideration and certain traits help.
First and foremost a therapy horse must be calm and have a low-flight response. This means that unusual things will not cause them to shy or run away. When a patient accidently hits them with a coat sleeve or drops something while riding, the horse must not become scared and try to flee.
Second, a therapy horse must be well trained and patient. They have to be patient and ignore all the incorrect or inadvertent cues a new pupil gives but then respond correctly when the right cue is given. Often, this understanding only comes with age and experience, so many horses do not become therapy animals until after the age of 5 or 6.
Finally, the horse has to be sound. Most therapy animals will work with several patients in a day and they have to have the energy and stamina to be able to respond equally well to the last client as they did the first. Also, for hippotherapy (which is dependent upon the horse’s movement) the specific rhythm of the gaits helps make the neurological connection, so the horse must be sound in all three gaits-walk, trot and canter.
While not every horse is meant to be a therapist, it cannot be dictated by breed, specific training, or age. The temperament of the individual will determine fitness for the role: patience, calmness, soundness, and being well-mannered are defining characteristics.
There are two main accreditation bodies for EAT: the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA).
PATH focuses on using the various EAT for people with physical, mental and behavioral challenges while EAGALA is concerned with mental health and personal growth uses. Both websites can provide links to certified therapists in your area.
Equine assisted therapy is not for everyone, but it is often the single best path to helping people for whom traditional therapy has not worked