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Four Equine Therapies for Human Mental Health

Many people find recreational horseback riding pleasurable and relaxing.  However, many individuals are unaware that there’s a therapeutic form of horseback riding [often integrated with psychotherapy] called “equine assisted therapy.”  In recent years equine therapy has garnered attention as a potential intervention for the treatment of PTSD, troubled youth, and even autism spectrum disorders.

From a historical perspective, equine therapy was found therapeutic in the late 1940s when implemented in Scandinavia to help those with polio.  In Greek literature, the usage of equine therapy dates back to 600 B.C.  In the 1960s, a group called “NARHA” (North American Riding for Handicapped Association) began testing equine therapy in the United States.

Their goal was to help improve quality of life via equine therapy among individuals with disabilities.  NARHA eventually underwent a name change to “PATH” (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) to expand therapy to anyone in need of therapy.  Many have found equine therapy to be beneficial for improving prognoses of disabilities, physical conditions, and mental illnesses.

What is Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy is generally more complex than hopping on a horse and going for a ride.  In certain therapy sessions, an individual may not even make physical contact with the horse.  Generally an individual will work with a skilled psychotherapist or instructor that will come up with various therapeutic goals to accomplish for the client.

The goals established between client and therapist may initially be relatively easy.  An example of something easy would be for a client to make peaceful contact with the horse.  A goal of moderate difficulty may be to lead the horse in a specific direction or help guide the horse to a standstill.  This generally involves complex thinking, forming a connection (bonding) with the horse, and trust (between the client and horse).

Over time, the goals in equine therapy may get more advanced and specific to the condition that is being targeted.  For example, someone with PTSD may have radically different therapeutic goals than someone dealing with autism.  Therapy with a client that has PTSD may involve reprocessing and desensitization of the trauma, whereas therapy with a client with autism may involve increasing communication skills.

In many cases there will be communication between an instructor, client, and psychotherapist.  There may be various phases where a client will solely work with an instructor, other phases where they may work solely with a psychotherapist, and other phases where both are involved in the therapy.  There is generally significant communication between a client and the instructor, psychotherapist, and between the client and horse.

Note: Equine therapy is sometimes conducted with a donkey in a form of therapy called “onotherapy.”  While it isn’t quite same as equine-assisted therapy, donkeys may be preferred over horses for certain individuals.

4 Types of Equine Therapy

There are several different types of equine therapy.  For those with mental illnesses, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) is recommended due to the fact that a licensed psychotherapist is involved.  Other forms of equine therapy include: Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL), Hippotherapy, and Therapeutic Riding (TR).

1. Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP)

This is a form of psychotherapy involving interactions with horses in attempt to improve mental health and functionality.  EFP is often utilized to help individuals with psychological disorders and emotional dysfunction.  It is thought to be helpful for individuals with: PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression, and other mood problems.

It may be therapeutic for those experiencing grief stemming from loss of a loved one or a break-up.  In other cases, it may be used to help cope with emotions associated with major life changes such as an alarming medical diagnosis or even a mid-life crisis.  Equine-facilitated psychotherapy must be done in conjunction with a licensed psychotherapist.

The therapist chosen should be qualified to conduct equine-facilitated psychotherapy.  Since most therapists are not trained in this type of therapy, it could be difficult for you to find a qualified therapist.  It is important to evaluate the credentials of any prospective EFP psychotherapist prior to enrolling in therapy.

2. Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL)

This is a specific type of equine therapy aimed to improve social and emotional learning via interaction with horses.  Individuals conducting EFL may not have a psychotherapy license and don’t generally need one for this type of therapy.  The goal of EFL practitioners is to help individuals improve social interaction skills and emotional regulation with horses.

The idea is that by improving communication skills and balancing emotions while working with horses, the effects will carry-over into everyday functioning.  Many alternative health coaches may recommend EFL.  If you are interested in this type of therapy for yourself or someone you know, it is recommended to review the qualifications of the individual that will be conducting EFL before you enroll.

Understand that this type of equine therapy is not technically “psychotherapy.”  It may be therapeutic in that it increases self-esteem and quality of life, but you will not be working with a licensed psychotherapist.  As a result of now working with a licensed psychotherapist, you may not attain as many benefits as you otherwise would.  This is recommended for those who are “at risk” or “troubled” rather than individuals with a mental illness.

3. Hippotherapy

Another type of equine therapy is commonly referenced as “hippotherapy.”  This is focused mostly on using horse movements as a form of occupational, physical, or speech therapy.  In other words, a therapist will use the fine-tuned movements of a horse to provide specific motor and/or sensory input for the client.

The goal is to establish neurological connection between the horse’s movements and sensory processing.  The idea is that hippotherapy has significant carry-over to other aspects of functioning.  Most people note improvements in motor skills, balance, coordination, attention, and other sensory processing abilities.

Depending on the subtype of hippotherapy you plan on pursuing, you will need to find a licensed practitioner.  Any therapist conducting hippotherapy should have a “Hippotherapy Clinical Specialty” (HPCS) certification.  This type of therapy can provide significant functional benefits for individuals (particularly children) with disabilities.

4. Therapeutic Riding (TR)

Another form of equine therapy is referenced as “therapeutic riding.”  This involves horseback riding by a client to improve various aspects of physical and/or psychological functioning.  Therapeutic riding is often provided by individuals with specialized training in horseback riding and/or under the supervision of a professional licensed in hippotherapy.

The goal of therapeutic riding is to improve cognitive, emotional, physical, and social functioning of the rider.  This is considered a beneficial therapy for those with disabilities, but it is not limited to solely the disabled – many individuals find “therapeutic riding” beneficial for their mental health.  It is thought that therapeutic riding may be particularly ideal for those with autism, language development disorders, trauma survivors, and those with sensory integration disorders.

Therapeutic riding is thought to help improve motor skills, confidence, and boost well-being among all individuals – especially those with disabilities.  It also may help people connect with nature and is considered an enjoyable recreational activity.

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