If you or your child has PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, or any of a range of other physical or psychological conditions, you may have heard about equine therapy as a treatment option. Equine therapy is just what it sounds like—therapy with horses! Whether you are fascinated by equestrianism or you have never given a horse a second thought, you might be thinking about giving equine therapy a try.
13 Reasons to Try Equine Therapy
Is it worth it? Going by the numerous inspirational stories out there, absolutely. In this article, we are going to share some reasons why you might consider equine therapy. But first, let’s talk a little bit more about what equine therapy is and how it works.
What is Equine Therapy?
During equine therapy, a mental health professional guides the patient in interacting with a horse. The exact activities will depend on the patient’s condition and needs. Any of the following could be involved:
- Feeding horses.
- Grooming horses.
- Leading horses.
- Training horses.
- Riding horses.
Is Equine Therapy Safe?
You might wonder whether someone who is physically or psychologically handicapped in any fashion should be around a horse. While horses are powerful animals, those that take part in therapy are gentle and well-trained.
The horse therapist also supervises the entire experience (sometimes this may be one individual, but other times there may be two—a therapist and a horse trainer). So, they are there to offer directions or to intervene if necessary at any point.
Who Can Try Equine Therapy?
Equine therapy may be an option for treating patients with a broad range of conditions or life experiences.
You might consider equine therapy for a patient with:
- Substance abuse
- Neuromuscular disorders
- Other conditions
Children, teens, and adults can all benefit from equine therapy.
Now that you know what equine therapy is and who it is for, let’s talk about some of the reasons you might want to think about giving it a try!
1. There are many different types of equine therapy.
With the many different forms that equine therapy can take, there is something for everyone.
Some examples include:
- Therapeutic horseback riding
- Equine-assisted learning (EAL)
- Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)
- Interactive vaulting
- Equine-assisted activities (EAA)
- Therapeutic carriage driving
You can read about some of these in more detail in this post.
Different therapy options may be more suitable for certain conditions, skill levels, and personalities than others.
2. The environment is friendlier than a clinic.
Another reason equine therapy might be more appealing than some of the more traditional alternatives is the environment in which it takes place.
Most regular therapy sessions happen in an office or clinic. For some patients, those can serve as neutral environments. But for others, clinical settings may result in feelings of anxiety and stress.
With equine therapy, sessions take place in a barn or pasture. Such a setting may feel less intimidating and more relaxing. Many patients also appreciate the fresh air and sunlight. If riding is involved, there may be a chance to get out and enjoy nature as well.
A more pleasing environment means:
- It may be easier to convince yourself or your child to attend therapy.
- The experience itself is more enjoyable.
- Because there is less anxiety involved, the therapy itself may be more effective than another form in a clinic would be.
Many patients who try equine therapy enjoy the barn and horses so much they look forward to their sessions.
3. Spending time with horses can improve physical health.
Working with horses—whether you are riding, training, or just grooming them—can be a workout. Equine therapy can be tailored to fit the physical capabilities of a given patient so that the patient is able to get the benefits of exercise without being pushed too far.
Along with benefits for strength, endurance, balance, and agility, research has shown improvements in areas like motor control and muscle activity. That is why equine therapy can be helpful for patients with neuromuscular disorders or developmental delays.
But even those who are in good physical health can benefit from the physical aspects of equine therapy.
4. Working with a horse can teach skills in communication, empathy, and problem-solving.
There are many situations where a patient might have a difficult time communicating with others, reading body language, applying the theory of mind, and solving problems. Challenges with communication and empathy are particularly common among people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Individuals with autism who struggle when trying to deal with other humans may find it easier and less frustrating to communicate and work with an animal. But in doing so, they may end up developing some skills which can also apply to interaction with other humans.
For example, they might get better at paying attention to a horse’s body language. This may translate into also becoming more observant of human body language. Additionally, strong systemizing skills might help them to understand patterns in horse behavior and link up body language with meanings. In doing so, they may practice skills that can also help them to do the same with humans.
And that is just one example. Patients with BPD, PTSD, or other conditions that involve social challenges may experience similar benefits.
5. Horses don’t judge us the way that other humans do.
One of the hardest aspects of getting by with just about any physical handicap or psychological difference is dealing with judgments from other people who may not understand. Our world is set up to cater to “averages” in terms of psychology, and it isn’t set up to accommodate physical disability well at all.
As a result, there is often a great deal of pressure on any person who does not fit into that pre-set mold.
- A person with a physical handicap may feel like they are burdening friends, family, and even healthcare providers with their disabilities.
- An autistic individual may burn out from constantly needing to mask to satisfy social demands in a society structured for neurotypical minds.
- Someone with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may be frustrated with a psychiatric system that regards them with a high degree of prejudice.
- A person with anxiety or depression may be sick of being told “just get over it,” and so on.
A horse offers a break from all of those endless judgments. An equine is never going to tell you that your feelings aren’t valid, or that you are thinking or speaking the wrong way, or that it is fatigued by your disability.
One may experience a sense of equality and acceptance from an animal that one rarely, if ever, encounters in other humans. It is much easier to make progress with any challenge one is grappling with when one feels truly supported. A horse may not understand one’s physical or psychological challenge—but it is a lot less likely to misunderstand in the same way a human might.
And it certainly will not apply endless standards of how and what a person “should” or “should not” be. The sense of safety one gets from that can feel like a breath of fresh air.
6. Taking care of a horse can help train executive function.
In conditions such as ADHD, ASD, or OCD, challenges with executive function are common. If you don’t know what executive function is, it is a set of skills that you use to carry out complex tasks. Short-term memory, emotional regulation, inhibition, self-awareness, and problem-solving abilities are all aspects of executive functioning.
If one is lacking in these abilities, it can cause one to appear disorganized or irresponsible, making it difficult to succeed in school or work. Tasks take longer, mistakes are more prevalent, and bosses and teachers are more often dissatisfied.
Working with horses gives people with poor executive functioning a chance to practice all of the skills involved. Whether one is grooming, training, riding or doing any other activity with a horse, abilities like problem-solving, planning, inhibition, and short-term memory all come into play.
Nonetheless, it may be less stressful and more enjoyable to practice these skills with a horse than it is to practice them in an environment like work or school. As just discussed, the horse doesn’t judge, and that by itself can remove some of the pressure, increasing concentration and self-confidence.
Additionally, working with horses is fun and interesting. When a task is engaging in such a way, it can be easier to perform. Although it might still be harder to focus on work or school activities and to perform at the same level, some of the skills that a person in equine therapy learns within the context of the barn may also transfer over to school or the workplace.
Plus, the confidence boost certainly will help. “If I can ride a horse,” you might reason, “I can finish this task for work.”
7. Sometimes a horse is easier to relate to than a human.
It seems like it should be easiest to relate to our own species. But sometimes, you might go through your life feeling like you are from another planet. This could be because some of your traits are a couple of standard deviations off from the average. Or, it could simply be that you are frustrated after bad experiences with your fellow humans.
Either way, looking into a horse’s eyes, you are connecting with a creature that is as different from you as you are from it and knows it. You are on a level playing field, and that can be refreshing.
Sometimes, there are also specific situations where a horse and a human might really connect over a shared trait.
This article in the Journal of Rehabilitation Research & Development (JRRD) provides a great example.
Barbara MacLean, LCAT, MT-BC talks about how veterans with PTSD may enjoy working with horses because of how accepting they are. At the same time, because horses can hold their own (unlike many cats and dogs), they challenge veterans to manage their anger.
MacLean also explains,
As prey animals, horses are hypervigilant until they learn they are not in danger. Unlike many dogs, who trust unconditionally, horses require humans to work to gain their trust. Because of their own hypervigilance, veterans with PTSD easily understand and can relate to the trust and hypervigilance in a horse. Other symptoms of PTSD are emotional numbness, a feeling of 'not being in one's body,' and a lack of awareness of body language. Horses understand communication primarily through body language, so the veterans with PTSD learn to become more aware of their bodies, their body language, and their expression of emotion through their bodies. They must become aware of the body language of the horse, which helps them become aware of others' body language, too.
8. Spending time with a horse can encourage us to be in the present.
Whether one is dealing with physical or psychological challenges, either can make it difficult to live in the now. A person struggling with trauma may find themselves pulled back repeatedly to the past—and also fearing a repetition of traumatic events in the future.
Someone with anxiety may find themselves focusing constantly on their worries about tomorrow. They could also keep replaying an experience from yesterday in their heads, trying to make sense of it.
It can be hard to extract ourselves from our memories and imaginings to really live in the moment—but a horse can serve as an anchor to the present.
9. Successfully training a horse or riding one can increase confidence.
Horses are large animals. As such, they can be pretty intimidating, even though many of them have gentle, affectionate demeanors. If you successfully are able to bond with a horse, communicate with it, and even train or ride it, you are going to experience a boost to your self-esteem and your confidence.
You will build a bedrock of positive experiences confronting challenges and anxieties and overcoming them. The next time you find yourself facing a challenge outside of the barn or pasture, you may think back to some of those experiences.
You will realize that if you were able to do more than you thought you were capable of during equine therapy, you probably can manage the next seemingly insurmountable hurdle in front of you. Your sense that your life is manageable will increase, and your stress and anxiety levels may decrease as a result.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself confidently taking on challenges you would have shied away from in the past.
10. Equine therapy may help you push yourself out of your comfort zone and manage your anxieties.
Building off of what we just talked about, working with horses involves regularly pushing yourself to try new things. For some people, just being around a horse might mean stepping outside of their comfort zones. We've discussed in the past ways that horses impact our mental health, and it continues here.
Of course, you probably would not want to use horse therapy for a patient who is genuinely all-out petrified of horses. That might be actively traumatic. But for the patient who finds horses beautiful and exciting but also a bit intimidating, there might be some instant reward to spending time with them.
The perspective shifts involved may also be helpful. For example, once a person who finds horses intimidating learns that they are not as scary as they thought, that might cause them to reassess other anxieties. In particular, if the skills they learned helped them to reduce their anxieties about horses, they will see that many things that may seem intimidating at first can become less so once they build up the knowledge and abilities they need.
Best of all, they will realize they are capable of developing new skills and knowledge and putting them to use. It can be a deeply transformative experience for someone to push themselves to try new things in the barn or pasture.
For example, someone with ADHD, OCD, or another condition that involves poor executive function may balk at the very idea of learning a routine for grooming or feeding a horse, much less preparing one to ride.
Just learning to carry out any one horse care routine might persuade them that they are more capable than they realized. Along the way, they might come up with some workarounds that help them to carry out the tasks despite issues with working memory or other aspects of executive function. They can then feel encouraged at their capabilities and use those same workarounds potentially for other tasks at work or school.
As another example, imagine someone with anxiety who tends to self-sabotage whenever they are considering trying something new that might entail some risk.
That person tries equine therapy. They think about all the things that could go wrong while they are riding a horse, but with the help of their therapist, they move forward. They learn precautions and skills that make accidents less likely, or which may help them to minimize the harm if something does go wrong.
They then manage to go riding and maybe even progress to more challenging riding activities over time. Along the way, they learn that many things they think may go wrong do not and that it is possible to manage many of the things that might.
With that boost to confidence, the anxiety a person feels about other areas of life may decrease. It is also easy to forget that pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones can be a satisfying experience in and of itself.
When we are always trying to do this within the context of work or school, where failing to do so brings harsh consequences, it can be hard to appreciate the excitement of doing something new. But the negative stresses of everyday life can fade to the backdrop in the pasture or on the trails, and we can remember that there is such a thing as positive stress.
That might make it easier to tap into the exhilaration of positive stress in situations with higher stakes.
11. Horses are pleasing to interact with from a sensory standpoint.
Do you experience sensory overload sometimes? If so, you know that sometimes the best antidote is to not just get away from the unwanted stimuli but to replace that negative sensory experience with one that is positive, calming, and uplifting.
Many people love being around horses from a sensory standpoint. Their powerful presences can be soothing, and the texture of their coats and manes can be pleasing. The smell of horses, the sounds they make, and the rhythm of riding all can be relaxing. The sheen of the sun on their coats and the gracefulness of their muscles and movements make them appealing to the eye as well.
This probably plays into why equine therapy has become popular for individuals with autism.
One article that talks about the benefits of equine therapy for autistic persons are this one.
This article explains,
To the respondents, horses ‘open up’ autistic children and make possible interactions that seemed impossible before. Horses were regarded as facilitating the emergence of apparently social behaviours, which included eye contact, pointing, and speech. Three key explanations emerged for therapeutic success: the sensorial, embodied experience of riding the horse; the specific movements and rhythms of the horse; and, the ‘personality’ of the horse.
While the sensory elements of equine therapy may be particularly beneficial for autistic individuals, they can also benefit pretty much anyone who can appreciate a pleasing sensory experience.
12. You may discover a passion for life.
The next reason to think about trying equine therapy is that it could be an introduction to something that you or your child could end up enjoying in a broader way for many years, maybe even a lifetime. Many people who try equine therapy have never stood in the presence of a horse before or had a chance to pet one or feed one, much less ride one.
Even though their original goal might have been to treat a physical or psychological condition, they might discover long after they are done with therapy that they are still drawn to interact with horses.
If that happens for you or your child, equine therapy may be just the start of a lifelong journey. Even if a therapist isn’t part of it for long, many of the therapeutic benefits could continue.
Who knows? Maybe one day, you will have a horse of your own, or your child will have one of their own.
13. Research supports the difference horses can make.
Another reason to consider trying equine therapy is that there is research to back it up for a variety of applications.
To wrap up this article, here are a few examples of studies that support equine therapy:
The researchers write,
Horses have a rich aesthetic influence on humans who interact with them, creating visual imagery of power and beauty … Consequences [of therapy] include improved mobility, decreased spasticity, improved psychological presence, and improved self‐esteem, resulting in improved quality of life … The nurse is positioned perfectly to treat more than a specific disability by viewing the patient as a whole. This newly researched intervention has promise in assisting the nurse to provide physical and psychological positive outcomes.
In this article, you can view a handy reference chart that goes over various studies conducted on equine therapy and its outcomes. The chart mentions improvements with respect to self-esteem, self-efficacy, depression, trauma, trust, resilience, mood, anger management, attention span, verbal communication, dissociation, life functioning, and more.
This chart mentions a study of 31 adults in a substance abuse program who completed 28 hours of equine-assisted experiential therapy (EAET). They experienced a “reduction in regret, guilt, resentment, fears for future. Enhancement in self-support and independence.”
Cancer patients participating in equine therapy have been able to connect both to horses and to fellow survivors. They also may connect more with the present moment rather than focusing as much on fears about tomorrow.
Horses can not only help veterans struggling with PTSD, but others experiencing trauma as well.
This analysis explains,
While all of these studies had small sample sizes (ranging from 4 to 30) and did not involve control groups or randomization, preliminary results suggest that there are many potential benefits associated with EFP for traumatized youth, including those with complex trauma histories (e.g., child sexual abuse). As such, EFP may be considered a promising auxiliary treatment for traumatized youth.
This research found that young patients with anxiety and/or depression experienced “a range of improvements within adolescent clients, including increases in confidence, self-esteem, and assertiveness, as well as a decrease in undesirable behaviors.”
Compared to controls, dementia patients who took part in equine therapy had fewer behavioral problems.
Equine therapy may improve the quality of life for patients with dementia.
Researchers conducting this meta-analysis concluded, “We conducted a focused systematic review to address these limitations. Our review suggested that equine therapy has beneficial effects on behavioral and to some extent on social communication skills in ASD.”
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This article states,
Adolescents struggling with BPD often feel great depths of pain and hopelessness (Frantz, 2019; Hayes, 2015; Yalch & Levendosky, 2019). With treatment goals to increase healthy, effective, and lasting relationships, EFP offers a safe relational container that may support these clients in being more willing to engage in therapy. Seen from the perspective of DBT concepts such as acceptance and change, and emotion mind and wise mind (Linehan, 1993a, b, 1994), EFP can be understood to allow growth and progress for adolescents struggling with BPD symptoms.
This small study looked into whether children with delays in psychomotor development would benefit from therapy with horses. The researchers discovered “noticeable changes in motor control” as a result of the therapy, suggesting it might be helpful in cases like these.
Researchers conducting this meta-analysis discovered that children with ADHD participating in equine-assisted therapy (EAT) had improvements in “behavioral, psychological and physical outcome measures.”
This research states, “Eight minutes of hippotherapy, but not stationary sitting astride a barrel, resulted in improved symmetry in muscle activity in children with spastic cerebral palsy. These results suggest that the movement of the horse rather than passive stretching accounts for the measured improvements.”
Equine Therapy Can Be Soothing and Restorative
Therapy with horses can bring numerous benefits to diverse individuals. Whether you are looking for therapy for yourself or for a child, the right form of equine therapy can have a profound transformative effect.
Horses are beautiful, powerful creatures that inspire us. By connecting with them, we can access our own inner beauty and power in ways we never thought were possible.
Continue exploring our posts to learn more about what is possible through equine therapy, and to discover more about the physical and psychological benefits of caring for, training, and riding horses.