Why Equine Assisted Therapy Works

Equine Assisted Therapy is a powerful, evidence-based experiential modality. The horse-human connection has a wide range of benefits for teen mental health.

Through equine therapy activities, teens gain confidence, build trust, and form healthier boundaries. Moreover, learning how to work with and take care of a horse, with the guidance of an equine therapist, helps clients practice empathy and develop authentic connections.

Ultimately, these skills are transferable to relationships with self, family, and friends. This is an essential step in growth and recovery.

How Does Equine Assisted Therapy Work?

Equine Assisted Therapy is also known as equine therapy, horse therapy, or equestrian therapy. It is an innovative, experiential approach that actively involves horses in mental health treatment. Therefore, the horse is a critically important partner. Equine therapists use this relational context to guide and support change.

In Equine Assisted Therapy sessions, teens learn how to accept themselves and others by working with horses, therapists, and peers. Credentialed Equine Assisted Therapists are present at all times during the therapeutic process.

Moreover, Equine Assisted Therapy is particularly effective for teens because it allows them to address emotions and issues through direct experience and nonverbal communication. Consequently, it can be especially helpful for teens who are resistant to talk therapy.

The Horse-Human Relationship in Equine Assisted Therapy 

Horses and therapy are a natural pairing because horses have a unique sensitivity to people’s feelings. In addition, horses react to subtle changes in their environment. Therefore, they can sense a teen’s emotional state, including states of depression or anxiety.

Thus, the horse acts as a sort of biofeedback machine for clients. In this way, horses respond to and reflect a client’s emotions and experience. Moreover, horses don’t judge teens based on their appearance or their diagnoses. As a result, teens feel accepted and unconditionally loved.

Calm, emotionally sensitive horses are ideal for Equestrian Therapy. As a result, horses are trained and selected specifically for this work.

The horses at Newport Academy are an important part of the treatment team.

Each client is assigned a horse to work with and care for. Furthermore, our horses receive the best of care. They get time off, Natural Horsemanship partner/relationship training, and routine medical care. This includes dental, chiropractic, and bodywork, as needed. Hence, at Newport Academy, our horses are family.

Newport Academy Treatment Resources: Equine Assisted Therapy

Meet Levi and friends.

History of Equine Assisted Therapy

Today’s Equine Assisted Therapy programs evolved from thousands of years of therapeutic methods involving horses. The earliest recorded mention of equine therapy is in the writings of Hippocrates, a Greek physician born in 460 BCE. He wrote about “hippotherapy,” derived from “hippos,” the Greek word for horse. Today, hippotherapy refers to methods of occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy using horses.

Equine therapy for mental health has a long history as well. In the 19th century, German physicians advised horseback riding to reduce attacks of hypochondria and hysteria. Subsequently, Europeans continued to promote and standardize therapeutic riding methods. These approaches were designed to reduce physical ailments and promote psychological wellness. Since the 1990s, inpatient rehabs and mental health programs have instituted horse programs for youth as an active part of the therapeutic process.

The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (Eagala) was founded in 1999. It was one of the first organizations to develop professional standards for incorporating horses into mental health treatment. Every certified Eagala practitioner is a credentialed Mental Health Professional or Equine Specialist. Thus, they receive standardized hands-on training, assessment, and mentorship.

Research on Equine Therapy for Anxiety, Depression, and Trauma

A large body of research indicates the efficacy of Equine Assisted Therapy as a tool for treating adolescents experiencing depression, anxiety, and/or trauma-related symptoms. Moreover, equine therapy has proven to be effective in addressing ADHD, autism, dissociative disorders, and other mental health diagnoses. In some cases, just a few sessions of equine therapy produced improvement. This was after years of conventional methods of therapy had failed to make an impact on the clients.

In one representative study, equine therapists identified a range of positive outcomes for their adolescent clients. These included increased confidence, self-esteem, assertiveness, and resourcefulness. They also saw improvements in emotional regulation and self-control.

Furthermore, equine therapy reduces anxiety and depression through physiological changes. Studies show that animal-assisted therapy reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. In addition, spending time with animals lowers blood pressure. And it increases the release of oxytocin, a natural chemical that promotes feelings of positivity and connection.

Newport Academy Treatment Resources: Equine Assisted Therapy

The Benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy

Equine Assisted Therapy supports teens on multiple levels. Studies show that equine therapy offers the following benefits.

Greater confidence and self-esteem:

In equine therapy, teens learn to master the new skills of working with horses. As a result, they have more confidence in their ability to take on new projects. In addition, their self-esteem grows. Moreover, their motivation for taking on other recovery-related challenges also increases.

Better communication skills:

Equine Assisted Therapy teaches adolescents the importance of nonverbal communication. Moreover, the horse’s reaction to their mood helps them see how their emotions and nonverbal cues affect those around them. Furthermore, they learn to communicate their needs clearly and to be assertive when necessary.

Improved self-regulation:

Because horses react immediately to their behavior, teens learn to control and modulate their actions. As a result, they develop emotional self-awareness and better control over their behavior. And they learn cooperation skills.

Sense of trust:

For teens who have experienced trauma, abuse, or abandonment, learning to trust the horse helps heal these wounds.

More realistic self-image:

Interacting with horses gives teens a more realistic view of themselves in relationship to a much larger creature. Therefore, equine therapy can be helpful for teens diagnosed with eating disorders.

Focusing outside oneself:

The act of grooming and caring for a horse helps teens focus on something outside their own struggles. Their attention is directed on the present moment rather than unhelpful ruminations.

Newport Academy Treatment Resources: Equine Assisted Therapy

Stronger social skills:

A positive relationship with a horse builds a teenager’s social skills. Hence, they are able to form and strengthen relationships with people.

Healthier boundaries:

The horse-human relationship fosters safe and appropriate boundaries. Thus, teens who have experienced unhealthy boundaries learn to create mutually respectful relationships.

Feelings of connection:

Teens struggling with mental health or substance abuse often feel alone and isolated. The horse’s unconditional acceptance helps them feel a sense of connection with other living beings and with the larger world.

To summarize, Equine Assisted Therapy is a powerful and effective method for addressing mental health challenges. In addition, it is a beneficial part of a teen treatment plan, in combination with clinical modalities. Finally, equine therapy supports the development of positive relationships with oneself, other people, and our animal friends.

Sources:

Addict Sci Clin Pract. 2015; 10: 21.

J Creativity in Mental Health. 2008; 3(3). 

Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2017; 22(1): 16–33. 

J Child & Adolescent Trauma. 2018 Sept; 11(3): 289–303.

Australian Journal of Counselling Psychology, 6(2), 13–17. 

Front Psychol. 2012; 3: 234.