What's more, they're social animals with their own personalities, and are most willing to interact when people are engaged and work to build a relationship with them. In general, traditional experiential psychotherapy techniques, such as role-playing, role-reversal, and mirroring, are combined with equine-based activities, including choosing, grooming, and walking a horse.
But in a study published in the journal Health Psychology, Smith-Osborne and her colleague Alison Shelby reviewed previous research on EAP, and found that the practice is a promising adjunct to traditional therapy. Adverse effects from EAP are rare, but decreased self-esteem and increased aggression in children and adolescents have been reported.
Being in the barn grooming, feeding, and otherwise caring for our horses reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and improves overall health. According to PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, there are many types of “equine-assisted activities.” In its broadest sense, any interaction between a person and a horse is an equine-assisted activity.
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.
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. Because of these qualities, horses can be used to help people heal from a variety of psychological issues.
Addicts and other trauma survivors have to learn how to identify their emotions in order to work through them. 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. Any of these kinds of reactions is rich material for talk therapy and can be worked through immediately or in future sessions.
We earn wages to buy feed and tack and maintain horse properties. 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 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.
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.
But building a true authentic connection founded in equality, respect and trust takes time, and requires a specific focus. Why this works for you: This activity helps build a sense of influence and control over your future and any arising challenges, which is an important mental health -protective factor.
Some studies have suggested that horses begin to experience some symptoms of discomfort, regardless of saddle fit, within 15 minutes. Unlike other senses of the nervous system (which go to a processing center of the brain to be analyzed), proprioceptive pathways (which are stimulated through deep pressure to the joints) go directly to the cortex and cause a calming and organizing effect.
Why this works for you: This activity helps increase your awareness of the biofeedback symptoms of your nervous system, so you can learn to control your stress responses as soon as you see them emerging. As most equestrians know, since horses are prey animals, they are experts at picking up on our emotional states and will mirror them right back at us.
Why this works for your horse: Prey animals instinctually operate in a state of fight or flight when they pick up on stress or a perceived threat. By learning to control your own responses to mood changes and stress, you allow your horse to process what is happening on a conscious level, eliminating the need for the nervous system to kick into a protective mode of fight or flight.
Why this works for you: Simply being in the presence of horses has been shown to have a calming and reassuring effect on humans, and is a great activity to add as a coping resource. It’s also a great way to develop hardiness, a protective factor related to how people process and cope with stressful events.
Giving ourselves permission to unscheduled our lives during stressful times is essential to relieving the pressure to perform and achieve when the focus should be tending to our mental health needs. When your horse experiences a state of relaxation in your presence, it creates a positive emotional memory and is stored in the amygdala of his brain.
O. T, CWA, CEA, has devoted herself to building an exceptional practice in family wellness by acquiring essential professional skills and developing her own exclusive art as a practitioner. Marianne has experience with families, children and adults with a multitude of circumstances and diagnoses impacting mental health.
Animals can assist in alleviating emotional distress and also serve individuals with physical disability. Studies have shown that interacting with animals helps decrease stress hormones in the body, thus improving your mood.
There are exercises to assist in self discovery and opportunity to experience victories with the horse, thus improving intricacies such as low self-esteem. Focusing on the horses' behavior can generate insight to your own thoughts and emotions and encourage relaxation practices in real time.
Some studies suggest individuals who struggle with anxiety and social skills gain a tremendous amount of growth due to the horse’s mirroring and feedback. This helps create a sense of personal awareness and an opportunity to put interventions into practice.
Both of these emotions are essential to the therapeutic practice with horses, yet a safe environment for such exploration. Because of the horses behavioral response to your emotions, this intervention has the potential of improving mindfulness and personal awareness.
With the emotional support of the horse and your therapist, you can take back your control and improve the quality of your life. Start achieving personal growth through equine assisted psychotherapy with horses and engage all of your senses.
Nash Potter is a happily married mother of four children with extraordinary compassion. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Florida, with well-rounded professional experience including the areas of physical and mental disabilities, substance abuse recovery, long term care, mental health and now operates her own private practice, Fern Ridge Counseling, LLC.
Horses are beautiful animals, but they can also be assets for mental health professionals. Horses, with their powerful stature, expressive eyes, and undeniable grace, have captivated and intrigued humans for centuries.
Humans figured out that working with or being around horses was beneficial to our well-being, and we’ve gone on to include them in therapy. There are several forms of equine therapy, each employing different ways of interacting with horses, from just feeding and grooming, walking them in a line to saddling and riding them.
These interactions have proved beneficial when dealing with various groups including veterans with PTSD, teens with different behavioral and psychological issues as well as kids with autism. Judging by the reported success of equine therapy, there’s no doubt that horses have a lot to teach us.
Well, researchers, therapists and others involved in equine therapy believe that part of the answer lies in the horses personalities. They are also highly attuned to the surrounding environment, including the emotional states of people around them in order to differentiate friend from foe.
This makes them highly intuitive and sensitive to our emotions, sometimes detecting feelings that we’re not even aware of having. They’re open and honest creatures, and they mirror our emotions back to us, giving us instant feedback.
Winning a horse’s trust takes time and as you work on that and watch the animal’s reaction, you become more aware of how your emotional state affects those around you. While equine therapy is still a growing field, we can’t discount its effectiveness especially when it comes to helping those struggling with mental health issues.