What is Equine Therapy?
The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) states “ Therapeutic riding is an equine-assisted activity for the purpose of contributing positively to the cognitive, physical, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs”
The above definition covers a broad range of benefits, and it’s true. Equine Assisted Activities (EAA) have been shown to help with brain disorders such as ADHD, mental disorders like PTSD, and physical disability in cerebral palsy patients. Its incredible!
How does equine therapy work?
Well, one interesting point is that horses provide a form of biofeedback. A horse is an animal of prey. This means that they have to be very sensitive to their surroundings to avoid becoming a predator’s lunch. Even though they are domesticated, their evolutionary instincts make them react to subtle changes in behavior that would normally go undetected by the rider/patient. It helps them become aware of their actions without the complication of speech.
An individual trying to interact with a horse is going to have to remain calm to spite circumstances. Otherwise the horse will begin to spook: move away, pin their ears, and become difficult to work with. Individuals with behavioral issues have the opportunity to see the result of behaviors that are not necessarily perceptive to them. Knowledge is half the battle; with the biofeedback loop they now have the ability to adjust and work towards positive interactions.
Riding a horse presents its own challenge. If you haven’t experienced it imagine sitting on a round surface and having to control your balance from your hips and torso. Arms can’t help you. Your legs have to squeeze to keep your body upright. The stirrups provide a little support like you would experience from standing or walking, but it’s minimal compared to what the posterior chain has to offer. Since the horse has 4 legs, the rhythm is very different from walking. All good things from a physical therapy standpoint.
Horses are big, much bigger than ourselves. This creates a sense of vulnerability. You won’t be able to make a horse do something it doesn’t want to do. You have to mind your manners and be present during your interactions with a horse. Respect is required. It’s hard to establish this in person-person interactions. A lot of benefit can be had from this scenario, particularly in children with behavioral problems.
Conclusions about Equine Therapy
You could recreate any of these three exercises without a horse, but I dare you to find something that has all 3 in one place. Oh and the opportunity to play with a beautiful animal. Horses and horsemanship give people with problems a positive reason to come to treatment and work towards a better life.
I’ve included references to some journal articles I’ve been reading to learn more about equine therapy.
A qualitative and quantitative review of equine facilitated therapy with children and adolescents
The Effects of Equine-assisted Activities and Therapy on Resting-state Brain
Function in Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: A Pilot Study
Effectiveness of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy in the Treatment of Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder