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What Is Equine Therapy and Equine-Assisted Therapy?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 09, 2021

Spending time with animals is beneficial. Pets are good for physical and mental health, thanks to their unconditional love and the stress-reducing effects of being around them. Most people think of dogs and cats as animals that help people. Horses can also be valuable partners in some kinds of therapy.

Equine-assisted therapies are programs where professionals guide clients through activities with horses. There are different kinds of equine programs, and they have different goals for the people involved. Some programs are part of mental health treatment. In other cases, clients ride horses as part of a physical or occupational therapy regimen.

Equine-Assisted Therapy for Mental Health

A horse barn doesn’t seem like the typical location for intensive mental health work. Still, some people find that equine-assisted therapy is beneficial. Typically, equine-assisted therapy is a team effort where a mental health professional works with a horse specialist. Clients who participate in equine-assisted therapy are usually seeking help for emotional or behavioral problems.

Clients work with specially trained horses and learn about caring for them. The therapy focuses more on learning to care for the animals rather than learning to ride. Working with horses happens along with methods like cognitive behavioral therapy and experiential therapy.

Caring for horses requires concentration, selflessness, and teamwork. Equine-assisted therapy programs can help people improve self-esteem, self-awareness, confidence, and empathy. Equine therapy programs can help treat:

  • Behavioral problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Grief
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Addiction
  • Eating disorders

Therapeutic Riding Programs

People who need physical therapy or occupational therapy often benefit from specialized riding programs. Like equine-assisted mental health therapy, therapeutic riding programs use specially trained horses alongside staff with professional training in occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy. Clients work toward various goals, depending on what their needs are.

People with a variety of abilities benefit from therapeutic riding. If a person can’t sit on a horse, horse-and-buggy programs are an option. The physical action of these activities helps people build strength and balance as well as improving spatial awareness. Both riding and caring for horses are helpful for enhancing physical endurance and dexterity, which is a common occupational therapy goal.

Therapeutic riding programs help people with a variety of special needs, including:

  • Amputation
  • Autism
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Down syndrome
  • Emotional or behavioral difficulties
  • Muscular dystrophy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Paralysis
  • Spina bifida
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Strokes
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Visual and auditory disabilities

Riding is also good exercise and a lot of fun. People who may have physical limitations and can’t participate in other recreational activities find riding to be an enjoyable way to spend time.

Equine-Assisted Learning

Equine-assisted learning is a skill-building method where people work with horses to achieve particular personal or professional goals. A client will work with a facilitator who makes a lesson plan based on what the person wants. The facilitator will guide a participant through lessons in horse care and observing horse behavior. They’ll link how horses behave back to lessons on how humans behave.

There are some specialized programs for veterans that incorporate elements of equine learning and equine-assisted therapy. These programs help veterans, especially those with PTSD, learn to reintegrate into civilian life. Working with horses helps them build communication skills, emotional regulation, and trust.

Learning programs can be tailored for each individual. Organizations can arrange to have an equine as a team-building experience or professional development program. People of any age can benefit from equine-assisted learning.

General Benefits of Riding

Therapeutic horse programs are valuable for people with specific needs and goals. Research shows that people with both physical and emotional needs benefit from working with horses. Therapeutic programs operate all over the United States.

Anyone can benefit from spending time with horses. Caring for animals is a proven way of reducing stress and boosting your mood. Pet ownership has been associated with decreased blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels, and lower triglyceride levels.

Horses, in particular, promote time outdoors. Taking riding lessons can lead to opportunities to socialize with other riders. Participating in a riding program may help decrease feelings of loneliness or isolation.

Riding horses is good exercise as well. You can get cardiovascular benefits from taking a vigorous riding lesson. Riding, grooming, and taking care of riding equipment all help build strength and endurance.

If you are interested in trying an equine-assisted therapy program, speak to your doctor or therapist for a recommendation.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Hippotherapy Association: "What Is Hippotherapy?"

American Psychological Association: "equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP)."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Pets & People."

Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M University: "Study examines health benefits of horseback riding."

Military.com: "How Horse Therapy Can Help Veterans."

Northern Clinics of Istanbul: "What is hippotherapy? The indications and effectiveness of hippotherapy."

PATH Intl: "LEARN ABOUT EAAT," "PATH INTERNATIONAL," "Who is Served?"

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