Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy

Horse Therapy A.K.A. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy EAP

Anyone who has ever cared for a pet will know that animals can offer an extraordinary amount of emotional support. The special bond that forms between pets and their owners represents a unique relationship so powerful that the emotional benefits we experience from being in their company can be leveraged for therapeutic application almost immediately.

What is Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)?

Horse Therapy, a.k.a. Equestrian or Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), is a holistic therapy that incorporates equestrian activities in a therapeutic manner, with the aim of treating mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. As a relatively new field there still exists a number of different terms that all refer to the same EAP treatment. These alternative synonyms include:

  • Equine-assisted mental health
  • Equine-assisted counseling
  • Equine-facilitated psychotherapy
  • Equine-assisted therapy

The Ancient Greeks were the first to record the therapeutic properties of animals when the ‘Father of Medicine’ Hippocrates wrote about the potential benefits of horseback riding. The treatment was left relatively unexplored until riding as a therapy tool became popular once again in the 1950s and 1960s.

Then in 1969 the North American Riding for Handicapped Association was formed, and this later became the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. The organization has grown to accommodate almost 30,00 volunteers, 2,000 instructors, and 5800 program equines; proving the therapy is not just effective in theory, but loved and attended by many.

With the recent uptick in popularization of equestrian activities for therapeutic application, more and more patients are quickly catching on to the potential benefits of the therapy that utilizes fun, mental and physical exercises, with almost zero side effects, at least in the traditional sense; a combination of factors many patients would consider a no brainer.

Horse Therapy Results

After 3 years of horse therapy, our daughter has made progress in several ways.

Why Choose EAP?

EAP has been shown to effectively supplement traditional mental health treatments and therapies typically prescribed to help patients overcome common emotional challenges and better navigate intimidating and/or awkward social experiences. Horses are powerful,, majestic animals. The average weight of a typical mature horse is between 900 and 2,000 lbs, sometimes even more, so it’s extremely common for people to feel intimidated by these large creatures the first few times they meet.

It’s this same daunting power that’s also responsible for the therapeutic properties these beloved animals possess. The more time you spend with them, the more you become calm in their presence, and this, in turn, has a positive effect on your self-confidence and esteem.

EAP involves numerous activities and learning experiences, both mounted and unmounted. A mental health professional will be in charge of the sessions, which may also include leading a horse and engaging in activities like feeding, grooming, petting, and riding. These activities help people develop social skills, better regulate their emotions, improve self-confidence, and become more responsible overall. These changes happen almost passively and begin to occur immediately upon undergoing therapy sessions.

Advantages of Equine Assisted Activities

There are a wide range of health benefits patients can expect to experience when undergoing EAP. The variety of activities, from mounted to unmounted, provides treatment options for patients of all ages, as well as patients who are fully mobile and those with restricted mobility.  Furthermore, there are several reasons why horses transfer these benefits more effectively than other, more familiar pets. Three of the main reasons this occurs include:

Nonjudgmental and Unbiased: Horses respond to the client’s behavior and emotions with no judgment and/or threat of bias. This can create a sense of peace when in the presence of and communicating with the animal, helping the patient feel more relaxed and confident in expressing themselves.

Feedback and Mirroring: Horses are susceptible to movement and emotions and often mirror the patient’s mood. It’s believed horses do this to convey understanding and connect with their rider to help form a mutual bond in which both parties feel safe. This exercise utilizes the horse’s behavior and interactions for feedback to help improve a patient’s sense of self-awareness and confidence.

Managing Vulnerability: Being in the presence of such a powerful, majestic animal creates a bond that gives the patient comfort to lean on. Patients who find themselves vulnerable and have trouble opening up about past experiences, emotional challenges, and/or other life transitions can significantly benefit from this support, which can, in turn, help patients to internally process experiences, both good and bad, and make complicated situations easy to approach and deal with.

In addition to these advantages, EAP can also help improve certain social and emotional characteristics such as:

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) Ideal Candidates

Who’s is Equestrian-Assisted Pyscolotherapy for?

The treatment suits people of all ages and from almost all demographics. Furthermore, counseling can be effective for individual sessions, families, or groups of patients. It can be useful in assisting patients when battling a wide range of challenges, from cognitive and emotional to social and physical, or a combination of all.

As noted, the range of mounted and unmounted activities provides therapy options for persons with disabilities who may have previously been denied the typical experience of frequently participating in outdoor activities. Working with horses from the ground can provide tremendous physical and psychological benefits and can be an effective alternative to therapeutic riding.

With an all-natural approach to therapy that focuses on physical activity, zero side effects from potentially harmful medication, and yet promising results akin to how exercise combats depression, Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy offers a unique approach to improving mental health. So, if you’re a pet-lover at heart but aren’t in the position to take on full-time care of a live-in, emotional support pet, then EAP horse therapy might be the ideal therapy solution for you.

What Can Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) Treat?

Boasting a variety of benefits for individuals of almost any demographic, EAP can provide effective supplemental treatment for a wide range of health conditions, both physical and mental. The most common problems the therapy is used to treat include:

Hypertonia: causes increased muscle tone, typically in the limbs, usually seen in patients with spastic cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, brain injury, or stroke. The horse’s movement naturally mirrors and follows our own motion when walking, while riding can help work the rider’s muscles. Both activities can help increase balance and flexibility and help patients relax when recovering.

Having control over the horse when walking or therapeutic riding can increase the patient’s feelings of responsibility, freedom, and confidence.

Hypotonia: essentially the opposite of Hypertonia causes a decrease in muscle tone, typically in the trunk. Often seen in patients with ataxic, hypotonic cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Down syndrome or brain injury. Therapeutic riding wider horse with bigger gaits can help stimulate weaken leg muscles in patients, it also helps improve core muscles.

Cognitive Impairment & Learning Disabilities: Abnormal or delayed development/impairment of mental processes used for interaction, communication, knowledge building, preparation, planning, etc. Often seen in patients diagnosed with Down syndrome, autism and Fragile X syndrome, attention deficient disorder, hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia and other mental health conditions.

Interaction with the horse and instructors, as well as volunteers and participants, can help patients see cognitive and physical improvements. Walking with, and/or therapeutic riding can increase balance, leg and core strength, as well as improving spatial and self-awareness. Performing these activities and achieving a level of competency can greatly increase a patient’s self-confidence and a sense of independence. It can also improve communication, problem solving skills, and social skills.

Sensory Impairments: Includes a wide range of disabilities, from dyspraxia (trouble with movement and coordination) and sensory integration/processing dysfunction to visual and hearing impairments.

Different types of horse can vary the impacted on the senses to treat different conditions. Patients with a visual impairment can benefit from horses with a consistent and even gait, which allows them to easily recognize audible patterns to decipher where the horse is, and direction it’s going. Patients with sensory integration disorder that give them a heightened sense of touch can benefit from horses with smooth gaits and a soft, fleece pad on the saddle for additional comfort.

Equine Assisted Learning: EAL teaches life skills via guided interactions with the horse. This involves working with the horses in an un-mounted manner, which provides the opportunity for patients to learn life skills such as respect, trust, and communication. 

The sheer power of the horse demands respect, and so does the gentle calmness; being present and mindful of this fact can significantly increase one’s self-awareness and bring unwavering clarity to the situation. Since horses generally use non-verbal communication, they are more in tune with human behavior than we might think. Simply being around the animal and being aware of this heightened awareness can, in turn, help improve a patient’s self-awareness, too.

In Conclusion

Although horses may not be the first animal that springs to mind, they should be asked to name an emotional support animal, and understandably so; emotional support dogs are extremely popular nowadays, largely due to the convenient access to amenities that dogs and their owners get to enjoy in many parts of the world.

However, not all people are in the position to care for a pet 24/7, and even for those who can, choosing the alternative route of attending EAP may provide additional benefits that other treatments simply cannot match. And considering EAP is natural, free from the risk of side effects, and involves getting out in the open and bonding with nature, there really is no reason not to give it go. You may be surprised at how effective the therapeutic process of equine-assisted psychotherapy can genuinely be.

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