Most of us who own horses talk about their “therapeutic” value. Being in the barn grooming, feeding, and otherwise caring for our horses reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and improves overall health. Yet, it is the companionship with our equine partners that is the foundation of our growth in relationship to these animals. Being with our horses is “therapy.”
The power of this relationship has not been lost on medical professionals. “Equine therapy” is a popular tool to use with a variety of populations. But what is equine therapy, and how is it used?
Equine Therapy Defined
According to PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, there are many different types of “equine-assisted activities.” In its broadest sense, any interaction between a person and a horse is an equine-assisted activity.
Equine-Assisted Therapy has a more specific goal. It is a treatment which uses horses to reach rehabilitative goals that are bounded by a medical professional’s scope of practice. Equine-Assisted Therapy is not an activity run by local horse clubs, church groups, or trainers. Instead, it is overseen by a medical professional, usually a licensed psychotherapist or physical therapist. Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy, which is used by addiction treatment facilities, veterans’ groups, and trauma centers, is always overseen by a licensed mental health professional. These types of therapies rarely involve riding the horse.
Benefits of Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy
Especially for those who are unfamiliar with horses, working with horses can be an intimidating experience. Addicts, the population I work with, often exclaim, “They’re so big!” Indeed, as all horse-people know, trying to get a thousand-pound animal to do what you want is no easy task. If you are unaccustomed to being honest and communicating clearly, the task becomes more difficult.
Horses can be an emotional mirror for humans. They respond to the feeling state we show. They are herd and prey animals, which means that they have a strong emotional sense and use this sense as a survival tool; they feed off of and respond to other horses in the herd. If one horse in a herd is scared, the others will become frightened. They respond similarly to humans. If a person approaches a horse with anger, the horse will respond by shying away or becoming stubborn. Horses never hide their emotions.
Because of these qualities, horses can be used to help people heal from a variety of psychological issues.
Identifying and Processing Feelings
First and foremost, horses can help individuals identify their feelings. Addicts, in particular, are known for numbing their feelings through the use of drugs and alcohol. When they get clean, they don’t know what to do with, or often how to identify, their feelings. This is a confusing and frustrating period for addicts. The horse, however, provides information to the client. If one walks angrily toward a horse, snatching its halter or lead, the horse will yank its head back and pull away. The therapist might ask the person, “What are you angry about?” Most of the time, the client will deny being angry and need to be shown the evidence of the horse’s behavior to identify the feeling. Addicts and other trauma survivors have to learn how to identify their emotions in order to work through them. Horses are a good tool for therapists to help clients do just that.
Horses can also open the door to re-visioning past traumatic events. Perhaps a plastic bag blows into the arena during a session, startling the horses. A client who has experienced child or domestic abuse might break down in tears upon seeing the horses frightened. It might remind him/her of experiences of powerlessness or helplessness, of being frightened, but having no-one to turn to. Any of these kinds of reactions is rich material for talk therapy and can be worked through immediately or in future sessions.
Horses require us to work. We get up early to feed and water them. We clean stalls. We earn wages to buy feed and tack and maintain horse properties. Domestic horses have to be groomed, exercised, and attended to.
It is the same in the human world. Most of us have to work. Whether it is raising children or going to an office, factory, or running a business, we get up early and show up on time. We participate in tasks that are not always easy or pleasant. We attend to our daily needs and those of others. We pay bills, clean the house, and keep the car in working order. We work hard and enjoy our moments of respite.
We also have to work to maintain our relationships. We listen to our friends, show up for our families, and provide service to our communities. Working hard and showing up in a healthy way are skills that can be learned by engaging with horses.
Horses are majestic animals that are wonderful simply to be with. Horses are gentle and honest; they do not have the ability to manipulate or lie. One common treatment technique for those who were abused as children is to put the (now adult) individual in with a large horse and allow them to interact. Very often, the person will break down in tears and say something like, “I’ve never been treated this kindly by anything so big.” This is an experience the client can then take into the human world.
Equine-Assisted Therapy, particularly Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy, can have positive results for those who are recovering from substance abuse, trauma, depression, or a number of other psychological issues. It can help individuals develop a work ethic, identify and process feelings, and learn how to trust. However, to be safe and effective, Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy must be provided by a licensed medical professional. As problematic feelings and memories arise, someone with experience helping people process those feelings must be present. The professionalism of those engaged with equine therapies is what makes them both effective and safe.