Why Do Horses Help Us Heal?

The promise of equine therapy

Posted Jan 06, 2018

Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

With their powerful stature and ability to run with the wind, horses have intrigued humans for centuries. Strong, yet sensitive, with their attentive ears and large, expressive eyes, horses are wary of predators. They spook in response to a noise or sudden movement. And for decades now, horses have been included in therapy. What is it about horses that helps people heal?

An article in the International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology  (Rothe, Vega,  Torres, Soler, & Pazos, 2005) offers some clues. Horses have been used in Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) since the early 1970s. In equine-facilitated psychotherapy, interacting with horses helps clients explore their feelings. Keenly aware of emotional energies, horses sense what we’re feeling, sometimes better than we do. With a few well-chosen words and a forced smile, we may be able to hide our real feelings from another person. We may even hide our own deeper feelings from ourselves. But we cannot fool a horse. Horses can sense emotions that lurk beneath the surface of our awareness and mirror them back to us, showing us what we have been avoiding. And like Rogerian therapists, horses are honest and present, responding openly without pretense. You know where you stand with a horse.

Building trust with such a sensitive animal takes time, time that can become a healing, empowering process. For years now, children with a range of issues, including ADHD, autism, eating disorders, abuse, depression, and anxiety, have benefited from equine therapy. The many ways of interacting with a horse—offering it carrots and apples; feeding, grooming, and cleaning up after it; leading it around on a long line; saddling up and riding it—gradually develop these children’s self-awareness and sense of agency. In communicating with a horse, they learn patience, attention, compassion, and responsibility, leading to a greater understanding of themselves and others (Rothe et al, 2005). As the study maintains, a therapeutic bond with a horse can help grow “mutual trust, respect, affection, empathy, unconditional acceptance, confidence, personal success, responsibility, assertiveness, communication skills, and self-control” (Rothe, et al, 2005, p. 376).

By mindfully relating to a horse, troubled children can learn the deep healing lesson of trust.

References

Rothe, E.Q., Vega, B. J., Torres, R. M., Soler, S. M. C., & Pazos, R. M. M. (2005). From kids and horses: Equine facilitated psychotherapy for children. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 5, 373–383.