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The Mental Health Benefits of Equine Therapy

March 18, 2022

By Melissa Riddle Chalos

Talk to anyone who grew up around horses or those who own, ride, or interact with horses in any way on a regular basis, and they all agree: There’s something therapeutic about being with horses.

In fact, the therapeutic nature of horses can be traced as far back as 460 BC in the writings of the Greek physician Hippocrates. He wrote about the health benefits of “hippotherapy,” a term that originated from the Greek word for horse, “hippos.”

They become like a tuning fork for the individual so that person starts getting in alignment with the truth of who they are and the truth of what they feel.

Eighteenth century German physicians often prescribed horseback riding for patients with hysteria and hypochondria — conditions that were as much mental as they were physical in nature. In 1875, French neurologist Charles Chaissagnac documented a study in which he concluded therapeutic riding improves not only muscle tone, balance, joint movement and motion, but also the mood of his patients. Equine therapy was used in Oxford, England, to rehabilitate soldiers of the first World War. 

In 1969, organizations such as British Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) and the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) — now known as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) —were formed to train, certify and provide guidelines and safety protocols for therapeutic riding centers. 

The more medical science has explored the benefits of Equine Therapy, the more it has discovered the powerful, evidence-based treatment it offers. 

What is Equine Therapy?

So, what exactly is “Equine Therapy?” According to PATH Intl., any interaction between a person and a horse is considered an equine-assisted activity. Equine-Assisted Therapy, however, is an innovative treatment approach involving interaction with horses designed to help people with physical, psychological, and substance abuse issues. This therapy is recommended or prescribed by a medical professional, usually a licensed psychotherapist or physical therapist, to achieve positive progress reaching specific mental health goals.

With children and adolescents, Equine-Assisted Therapy often includes activities such as observing, handling, grooming, and structured exercises focused on the patient’s needs and goals. The nonverbal opportunities within these activities help children — and anyone experiencing a physical or mental health challenge — grow in self-awareness and the ability to identify negative feelings and self-defeating thoughts. Engagement with therapy horses can result in significant improvement in judgment, insight, perception, social skills, communication, and behavior.

There is mounting evidence — no pun intended — to support the efficacy of Equine-Assisted Therapy in the treatment of a wide range of mental health challenges, including:

How Does Equine Therapy Work?

Formidable in size and yet gentle and accepting, horses have an innate ability to empathize with humans. Just like people, they can be extroverted, shy, playful, stubborn, and genuinely affectionate. They are remarkably sensitive to expressions of fear, anger, agitation, and sadness and engage without an ounce of judgment, expectation, or preconceived notions.

horses at The Meadows

According to The Meadows’ Somatic Equine Practitioner Colleen Derango, horses reflect the emotion they sense from patients: “They become like a tuning fork for the individual so that person starts getting in alignment with the truth of who they are and the truth of what they feel.” 

Horses can assist patients in experiencing success, failure, risk-taking, uncertainty, and adventure. They can also enable them to feel empowered to make decisions and take responsibility for their feelings and actions.

What are the Benefits of Equine Therapy?

During Equine Therapy, as the bond between human and horse grows, healing happens in a myriad of ways. Some examples include:

  • Physiological anxiety is dramatically reduced through touch, genuine affection, and attention from the animals.
  • Overall well-being, self-esteem, and self-confidence in people suffering from social anxiety, panic disorders, and substance addiction is improved.
  • Trust and connection (which is oftentimes a barrier for those who have endured trauma) are built with the horse, the therapist, and within the client.
  • Empathy, the development of perseverance, respect for living beings, positive attitude and mindfulness — the ability to identify, feel and express emotion in healthy ways — is increased.
  • Muscle tone is improved, as well as coordination and balance, which is especially important for people with neuromuscular disorders.
  • Distractions are reduced for people with ADHD while concentration and attention are improved.
  • The quality of life for people living with PTSD symptoms is dramatically improved as horses are hyper-vigilant in unfamiliar conditions, much like those with PTSD.

With emotional and physical health benefits like these, it’s no wonder more and more mental health programs are partnering with experts in Equine Therapy to make Equine- Assisted Therapy more widely available. 

This is just one of the many innovative, holistic therapeutic tools we offer here at The Meadows. Could Equine Therapy help you or someone you love in their healing journey? Reach out today to find out.