Holistic Healing Through Equine-Assisted Therapy

When you commit to a lifestyle of eating healthy and nutritious food, strange things start to happen. For some of us, these things involve horses, as you’ll see…but we’re not quite there yet.

When I say “strange things,” I’m not talking about the dreaded carb flu some of us experience at the onset of a reduced-carb diet. And I’m not talking about that crazy uptick in energy we feel after a week of eating raw almonds instead of potato chips. There’s more to it than that.

Our minds start to change.

In my experience, people who eat healthy tend to be more sensitive about what they put into their bodies and expose to their brains. They struggle with how to live a holistic, healthy life in our modern society. For so many, cost and lack of time can feel like huge barriers to actualizing a healthy lifestyle. A mother working eight to ten hours a day may not feel she has enough time to grow her own organic food or money to shop at the local organic store. When her kid gets a cold, picking up some medicine from the pharmacy seems easier than seeking out high-quality herbs and natural remedies.

However, these challenges become easier when we lean on the people around us. When we ask knowledgeable friends about where to find the best natural remedies. When we buy our food from local farmers. It comes down to interconnectedness. After all, whether we’re sick or healthy, we yearn for connection with other living beings. It makes us physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger. But when we pump our bodies full of chemicals, even knowing full well that drugs dull us down, we only feel more numb and isolated.

Here’s where the horses come in.

In 1944, Danish equestrian Lis Hartel contracted polio. The disease left her with decreased function in her hands and arms and completely paralyzed below the knees. Yet she continued to ride. In the 1952 Helsinki Olympics—the first games allowing women to compete in the dressage event—Hartel won a silver medal. And she introduced the world to the idea of horse riding as rehabilitative therapy.

Instead of giving up the fight and treating her polio exclusively with pain medications, Hartel’s drive to literally get back on the horse helped change the way we look at rehabilitative care. By the1960s, the Germans, Swiss, and Austrians were regularly using horses in physical therapy regimens.

Despite these early advances, equine-assisted therapy remains an oft-overlooked method for treating psychological, physical, and developmental disorders. Instead, we commonly reach for pharmaceutical fixes such as SSRIs and antipsychotics. Of course, depending on the severity of the condition, sometimes medications are deemed necessary in conjunction with nontraditional treatments. But the most important aspect of any nontraditional therapy is how much it helps clients rely on their own abilities to face and overcome challenges—with the fortitude they develop themselves.

What Is Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine therapy encompasses a range of experimental treatments, based on interactions between humans and horses, that promote physical and emotional growth. It can involve riding, grooming, leading, or feeding, or simply being in the presence of a horse.

Given its experimental nature, there’s not a ton of scientific research available on equine therapy. But what little research there is has been overwhelmingly positive. For example, the article “Equine-Assisted Therapy: Physical and Emotional Benefits” reports that “people working with horses experience decreased blood pressure, lower stress levels, and reduced feelings of tension, anxiety, and anger. In addition, studies show you gain feelings of self-esteem, empowerment, patience, and trust.”

Animal therapies in general are becoming more and more popular as individuals seek nondrug alternatives for issues like social anxiety and addiction recovery. Whereas prescription drugs isolate patients from the wider world by dimming down their brain chemistry, horses by nature encourage patients to face their issues head-on.

Think of the sheer size of a horse. It can be intimidating, and patients must find a way to deal with the feelings this stirs up. Horses are also sensitive animals that mirror back the energy around them, so patients must learn to master their emotions on the fly. On top of all this, patients who struggle with physical disorders can also benefit from the tempo and sway of a horse’s gait.

As you can see, interacting with horses requires a creative way of thinking, one that forces us to reconsider—or at least be aware of—the way we behave.

Equine Therapy and Substance Abuseman having in front pills and fruits, Choosing between them

Equine therapy is perhaps most commonly used at treatment facilities for drug, alcohol, and sexual addictions.

You may have seen headlines that scoff at the idea of a famous (or infamous) patient riding a horse during a stint at rehab. But the belief that someone doesn’t deserve rehabilitation—a can of worms we won’t open now—should have no bearing on the efficacy of the therapy itself.

Withdrawal from an addictive substance comprises elements of both physical and emotional cleansing. Equine therapy cannot wean addicts off heroin or alcoholics off alcohol. But once they physically clean up, equine therapy can help them address the emotional issues they will face upon reentering society.

In the later stages of rehab, many (if not most) addiction patients will begin questioning the social structures around them, often resulting in a high level of anxiety.

But as I stated earlier, horses are known to mirror back human behavior. And addiction treatment counselors find that something interesting happens to patients in the presence of a horse: the patient focuses on the horse’s anxiety and learns to calm the animal. This kind of cognitive therapy can help addiction patients develop the same skills on a personal level. Much better than masking their problem with medication alone.

Equine Therapy and Autism

Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are developmental mental conditions characterized by a difficulty forming relationships with other people, trouble using abstract concepts, and limited communication. It’s easy to see how traditional talk therapies can be a huge challenge for individuals on the autism spectrum, where communication itself is the hurdle.

Equine therapy, on the other hand, involves very little verbal communication. The focus is more on nonverbal cues like demeanor and behavior. A 2012 study found that ASD participants who completed ten weeks of therapeutic horseback riding demonstrated significant improvements on measures of irritability, lethargy, stereotypic behavior, hyperactivity, expressive language skills, motor skills, and verbal praxis/motor planning skills.

Equine Therapy for Cerebral Palsy

Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder caused by damage to the brain of a developing baby. It profoundly affects muscular control, manifested by difficulty with fine motor skills and an inability to maintain balance or walk. The limbs of people with CP can be stiff and forced into painful positions, or they can writhe and tremble due to irregular muscle contractions.

Of course, any kid would light up at making a new horse friend, but children with CP benefit from horse therapy both physically and emotionally. On the physical front, the three-dimensional movement of a horse’s gait helps children with cerebral palsy “plan physical responses to the horse’s movement.” When horseback riding, they must make subtle adjustments to their positioning to stay balanced on the animal. Overall, horseback riding therapies have been shown to improve gross motor skills, trunk/core strength, extremity control, and respiratory control.

Horses Are Our PartnersGirl riding a horse

In her book Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin writes: “I wish more kids could ride horses today. People and animals are supposed to be together. We spent quite a long time evolving together, and we used to be partners.”

Horses help us reconnect with our collective history, with our human roots. They wake us up to the realities of the present moment and get us out of our own heads.

In so many ways, society at large seems to push us toward medication, but when we reject that idea—or at least find a way to pair necessary medication with nontraditional therapies—we improve our chances of being more connected. And when that happens, we are more free than ever before.

Photos from iStock/BogdanBrasoveanu (man), andreipugach (little girl on the horse) 


Katie Kapro

Katie Kapro is an animal lover and writer in the intermountain west. When not at her desk, she can usually be found digging in the dirt at the community garden.

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