Equine assisted therapy is an age-old treatment that connects humans and horses with a profound bond unlike any other. It’s a programme that promotes healing by working alongside horses with holistic coaching to help resolve mental, physical and emotional issues - but why are horses used and can they really help?

History of equine assisted therapy

Using horses to encourage and aid recovery dates back to times when horses were used for therapeutic riding in ancient Greece, with literature from 600BC also mentioning the health benefits associated with horse-back riding. Later in 1875, French neurologist Charles Chassaignac discovered how horses could bring about healing properties. He found that horse riding improved a rider’s balance and muscle control, with positive effects for paraplegics and patients who suffered from emotional and neurological disorders.

Since then, horse therapy has been used all over the world to help treat people suffering mental, physical and emotional problems - with many organisations providing services and programmes to encourage equine assisted therapy. Over the last 20 years, psychological therapy has evolved out of equine therapy, with a stronger focus on the emotional stresses and mental challenges that people are facing. More and more individuals are discovering the ways in which empathetic animals can be used in healing and recovery processes, which is why so many are using equine assisted therapy to help a variety of issues. The types of illnesses and disorders that can be supported include: addictions, anger, autism, behavioural problems, low self – esteem, eating disorders, depression and many human development needs.

How does it work?

Equine assisted therapy encourages a new way of thinking. You don’t need to have riding experience and there is normally no horse riding involved in the treatment itself. Horse therapy is more about understanding and interacting with the horses on a deeper level to bring about self-discovery by reflecting on the activities within the treatment programme. Helping with many issues, equine assisted therapy is especially helpful for those looking to make behavioural changes, and as horses don’t respond well to anger, this style of treatment forces people to act in a different way. Equine assisted therapists set up various exercises that challenge ways in which people usually behave. These exercises can be anything from leading the horse in different directions without a lead rope to mucking out and caring for the horse to create an unbreakable relationship. Communicating with horses takes a lot of skill and patience, which is why they are perfect animals for equine assisted therapy. Sensitive and empathetic, horses tend to respond in a similar fashion to the way in which human’s act towards them, and many equine experts claim that horses have the ability to mirror the moods of people.

Why horses?

Horses are non-judgemental and honest animals with calming and therapeutic qualities that make them ideal for therapy sessions. Equine assisted therapy uses their gentle natures to rebuild trust and confidence in people suffering a multitude of issues, helping to create bonds that can last a lifetime.

Horses are used for a number of reasons, from their overwhelming size to the fact that they can be extremely loyal and loving to humans. As powerful animals, they can be extremely intimidating which is the first challenge most people have to overcome as soon as they start therapy. Trusting horses and learning to work together can be a real sense of achievement, and overcoming the initial fear of their size can often be the first step to recovery for many. Horses also have their own personality and characteristics. They can be stubborn, shy, extrovert and friendly - all of which make them the perfect companion during equine assisted therapy treatment as they provide a vast opportunity for growth and self-discovery.

As herd animals, horses naturally desire companionship and want to create relationships when they can – this alone makes them ideal animals to work with during therapy sessions as they will work hard alongside you to create a bond for life. Their innate ability to mirror the thoughts and behaviours of people means that horses can read body language, and often respond immediately. Horses are sensitive to emotions and won’t welcome negative actions or attitudes. It’s this characteristic that helps people in therapy work towards changing the way they behave and reflect on the way in which they approach certain situations.

Therapeutic benefits of equine assisted therapy

Working with horses can have an enormous physical and emotional impact on people facing challenges in their life that they want to address. There are many benefits of equine assisted therapy, including the below:

  • Confidence building
  • Improved self-esteem
  • Improves attention
  • Reflection
  • Anger management
  • Behavioural changes
  • Problem solving
  • Creative thinking

Equine assisted therapy is an experimental therapy that is becoming increasingly popular with many people seeing effective and successful results. An alternative treatment to most clinical methods, the environment is extremely different to what most people are used to, which is why it helps encourage positive and creative thinking on the road to self-discovery.

Do you know anyone who has tried equine assisted therapy or are you looking for a different method of therapy to try yourself? Get in touch with your comments below!