What is Equine-Assisted Therapy?

According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the definition of equine is “of, relating to, or resembling a horse or the horse family.” It follows, then, that equine-assisted therapy involves horses. But what, actually, is equine-assisted therapy?

There are distinctive types of equine therapy, but they all involve the use of horses. There’s equine-assisted therapy (EAT), equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), and equine-assisted learning (EAL), equine-facilitated learning (EFL), and equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP).

Equine therapy is practiced around the world. Originally used to help patients recover from traumatic injuries, it then became a widely-used therapeutic method to treat physically handicapped individuals. In recent years, equine therapy has branched off into other areas – treating a wide variety of psychological and mental disorders and addiction.

EAP in Addiction Treatment

Treating addiction is a complex and comprehensive process involving multi-disciplinary programs or modalities. Among the many healing therapies that are available in addiction treatment and rehabilitation centers, equine-assisted psychotherapy has been shown to be beneficial for more than two decades. Besides treating addiction, EAP is also useful in addressing issues of co-dependence, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), psychological and emotional issues such as depression, grief, anxiety, and anger management. It is especially helpful in helping treat the entire family, since addictions and psychological/emotional problems affect everyone, not just the individual seeking treatment.

EAP is an effective treatment method for:

  • Teaching teamwork, communication and problem solving
  • Helping individuals face fears, increasing confidence and self-esteem
  • Providing a safe environment in which to address emotional roadblocks
  • Developing new ways of interacting socially
  • Providing challenging, fun and therapeutic healing

Credentials and Organizations

Equine therapy programs are facilitated by licensed therapists who are also experienced, certified equine specialists. One organization certifying EAP therapists is the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EGALA). According to its web site, EGALA is “dedicated to improving the mental health of individuals, families and groups around the world by setting the standard of excellence in equine-assisted psychotherapy.” EGALA is the premier professional association providing standards, education and support for EAP professionals.

Two other organizations, recently integrated, EFMHA (the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association), and NARHA (the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association), will eventually have a new name – to better reflect a correct and current image of the work being jointly done. For years, EFMHA, formerly a section of NARHA, has led in innovative and organization of leadership in EFL and EFP. Through the integration, licensed psychotherapists will have “clearly defined processes for establishing practices in EFP,” and “accredited centers will be able to add EFP to their services with more ease.”

Specific Uses for Equine-Assisted Therapy

Troubled teens or those suffering from anxiety or other mood or mental health disorders are often able to heal during residential treatment programs that utilize equine-assisted therapy. The therapy goes far beyond therapeutic riding in its approach, helping teens to establish personal boundaries, self-awareness and accountability as well as develop better relationship and non-verbal communication skills.

Equine-assisted therapy is also effective in outpatient and aftercare recovery programs.

EAP is an effective, brief therapeutic approach that is experiential in nature, and may serve as primary or adjunct treatment to patients with addiction, co-addiction, co-occurring disorders and other issues.

EFP, according to EFMHA, may be useful for patients dealing with psychosocial issues and various mental health needs, such as (but not limited to):

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Psychiatric disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Behavioral difficulties
  • Other psychological illnesses – such as schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, personality disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), receptive or expressive language disorders
  • Major life changes such as trauma, grief, divorce and loss
  • At-risk youth
  • Victims of violence

Why Use Horses in Treatment?

Horses are large, imposing animals that can weigh anywhere from several hundred to 1,000 pounds. They’re also social animals, just like humans, and they have defined roles within their herds. Horses have distinct personalities, moods and attitudes. If you ever doubted this, just watch an interaction between a person and a horse. What works with one horse will not necessarily work with another. A horse may seem stubborn and defiant, or playful and fun. In fact, they like to have fun, and they like to be with their peers.

Horses also require work. They can’t clean or groom themselves, or set out their own food. And attending to their needs requires discipline and responsibility.

Documented research shows positive physical and psychological results from humans interacting with horses. These include, but are not limited to, decreased blood pressure and heart rate, lower levels of stress, reduced feelings of tension, anxiety, anger and hostility, as well as increased levels of beta-endorphins, and beneficial feelings of self-esteem, empowerment, patience and trust.

Often, patients being treated with EAP have difficulty relating to other human beings, and would not accept closeness with another – but they will with horses. There’s a bond that develops over time with equine-assisted therapy that is profound and natural, according to therapists utilizing the modality.

The Process of Bonding and Healing with Horses

How does this happen? Initially, upon entering the corral where the horse is located, the patient is most likely fearful. After all, the horse is much larger and pretty frightening to someone with limited ability to interact, has difficulty communicating, and is recovering from alcohol or drug abuse or co-occurring disorders. Lacking self-esteem, the natural tendency is to run away.

Equine-assisted therapy typically occurs in a small group setting, usually less than a dozen participants, and facilitated by certified equine-assisted therapist and trained professional therapist. The process generally involves establishing a presence with the horse and gradually nurturing that relationship. This may or may not involve actual riding of the horse, but does involve grooming, longeing or vaulting, and experiential group exercises. Individuals may receive one-on-one focus during the group setting. Following the session, the individuals are allowed time to process their experiences with their therapists, who then integrate these insights into the patients’ treatment plans.

To effectively communicate with a horse involves a lot of patience, consistency, attention and understanding. Horses are sensitive to mood, and have moods of their own. According to equine experts, horses have the ability to mirror the moods of people. A patient may tell the therapist that the horse is stubborn – when, in fact, it is the patient that is stubborn and resistant. Another often-heard initial comment is that “the horse doesn’t like me.” But horses, say the experts, are honest – and this makes them valuable assets in helping patients develop necessary non-verbal communication skills. This requires the patient to get outside their self, to respond to the horse with affection and attention. The result is that the horse will respond in a similar fashion.

The bond that develops between horse and patient involves:

  • Affection
  • Assertiveness
  • Communication skills
  • Confidence
  • Empathy
  • Mutual trust
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Self-control
  • Unconditional acceptance

Settings for Equine-Assisted Therapy

Each treatment facility is different, and so are the locations or settings for equine-assisted therapy. One setting may be amidst mountain scenery with 180-degree views of the Pacific Ocean, replete with teepees, horse corral and images that evoke a more rustic and tranquil pace. Another may be adjacent a large metropolitan city but situated near a peaceful stream, in the woods, or on a farm. In all cases, the setting should be private, secluded, safe and peaceful. As with all aspects of specialized addiction and mental health treatment, confidentiality of patients and the security and privacy of treatment locations is paramount.

How EAP and EFP Work

EAP and EFP professionals say this therapy provides opportunities for metaphorical learning. Using metaphors, either in activities or discussion, is an effective technique for working with individuals.

Non-verbal communication with a horse helps patients better understand themselves and how they relate with others in the world. Horses, as previously mentioned, relying in instinct and intuition, are adept at reading non-verbal cues, and reflect back to the individual with their responses.

Another component of healing that is complementary to EAP and EFP is psychodrama, which allows action to help heal the past, clarify the situation in the present, and help patients envision the future.

Why Consider EAP or EFP?

Overcoming addiction, co-occurring disorders or other debilitating issues is more than just purging the body and mind of negative influences, learning new behaviors and coping skills. It’s also about having fun, developing self-confidence, self-respect, learning to enjoy life without addictions, and fostering a new-found sense of ability, responsibility and a hope for the future.

Used in conjunction with other treatment modalities, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), experiential therapy, hypnotherapy, meditation and others, depending on the individual’s specifically-tailored treatment program, EAP and EFP facilitates the healing process. The goal of treatment is to heal mind, body and spirit, and to help the patient return to a normal life minus the burden of addiction, physiological, emotional or mental health disorders.

As such, EAP or EFP, if offered in either residential or outpatient treatment or aftercare program, may provide that extra meaning and sense of purpose in a person’s life. The potential benefits of utilizing this equine-assisted therapy as part of an overall treatment plan cannot be overemphasized.

EAP/EFP or other forms of equine-assisted therapy may be a part of the treatment program or may be considered an add-on service. Check with the treatment facility to determine the availability and cost of such a treatment method. Interested parties should also consider visiting the facility and speaking with the staff regarding the effectiveness of EAP/EFP at the location.

Does EAP/EFP work? Again, according to treatment professionals, the answer is a resounding yes. Should you consider it as a treatment method for yourself or another? The answer to that depends on particular needs, availability, financial and other resources, motivation and the recommendation of the treatment facility therapists. Looking at it another way – EAP/EFP is one of the most increasingly popular forms of treatment. Why not give it a try?

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