In recent years, many people have been turning to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) as a means of healing. Therapy sessions with horses have shown that horses can help us cope with our mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Through EAP, patients engage with horses by participating in activities like grooming, petting, walking, riding, and feeding, all while under the supervision of their therapist and a professional horse handler. Many patients have reported decreases in psychological symptoms and increases in their well-being, as well as noticing that they have become more independent, self-supportive, and less fearful.
But why horses?
For starters, horses don’t judge us. They aren’t concerned about our weight or our appearance, and they won’t criticize or reject us for these superficial reasons. From Lac et al. (2013), “Acceptance without judgment is a rare quality among humans but is often found in the relationship with horses.”
In addition, horses are highly social, and as prey animals, they depend on communication with others in the herd for safety. Because of this dependence on others, they provide immediate feedback and freely express their emotions, unlike humans who often keep their emotions closely guarded. As humans, we tend to be drawn to this trait in horses and feel a connection with them.
For obvious reasons, therapy with horses occurs in the horse’s natural surroundings. This tends to have a positive effect on some people who are reluctant to try traditional therapy. Working with horses outdoors can reduce some of the anxiety we experience over going to a clinical office setting. Additionally, it provides interactive sessions that increase participation and engagement, which some of us may view as a more attractive option for therapy.
Horses can also help us build trust and break communication barriers. Patients who might be reluctant to open up to other humans may be able to connect with the horse as a first step in breaking these barriers. In addition, therapists can also see how their patients interact with the horses, giving them a better idea of how they might interact with other humans.
Case studies conducted by Hannah Burgon in 2003 reveal some insights into the benefits of equine therapy. One woman who suffered from depression and social phobia explained that learning a new skill (horseback riding) increased her level of self-confidence. She had previously been afraid to go out in public by herself to do everyday tasks like shopping. Equine therapy gave her the confidence to do this.
Another woman who suffered from depression and suicide attempts said that jumping with the horses allowed her to conquer her fears and feel more free. She believed that the horses were nonjudgmental and she felt that they could sense her mood and respond accordingly. She also explained that the therapy improved her concentration because when working with horses you must be constantly vigilant, aware of where they are and what they are doing at all times.
A third participant in the therapy complained of being overweight and not being motivated to exercise. However, after therapy she felt that the horse motivated her to improve because she enjoyed the exercise that riding provided.
Perhaps the most compelling story is that of Veronica Lac’s patient, “Amy” (read here: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0022167815627900), a teenager battling anorexia and self-harm who formed a unique bond with some horses who had also been recently harmed by an act of violence. On Amy’s first day in therapy, she revealed her scars to the horses. The injured horses seemed to sense that Amy’s scars were like their own scars, and they moved in around her to comfort her.
From Rothe et al. (2005), “Horses, just by their large, gentle presence, put people therapeutically in touch with their own vitality.” While Equine Assisted Psychotherapy might not be right for everybody, it has certainly benefited many by improving their self-confidence and aiding in their recovery from eating disorders, depression, and anxiety.
Does EAP sound like it might be right for you? If so, the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) provides a list of certified professionals around the world on their website: http://home.eagala.org/find.
Brandt, C. (2013). Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy as a Complementary Treatment Intervention. The Practitioner Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology, 2, 23-42.
Burgon, H. (2003). Case studies of adults receiving horse-riding therapy. Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 16(3), 263-276. doi:10.2752/089279303786992099
Burgon, H. L. (2014). Equine-Assisted Therapy and Learning with At-Risk Young People. doi:10.1057/9781137320872
Lac, V. (2016). Amy’s Story: An Existential-Integrative Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy Approach to Anorexia Nervosa. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57(3), 301-312. doi:10.1177/0022167815627900
Lac, V., Marble, E., & Boie, I. (2013). Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy as a Creative Relational Approach to Treating Clients with Eating Disorders. Journal of Creativity in Mental Health, 8(4), 483-498. doi:10.1080/15401383.2013.852451
Quiroz Rothe, E., Jimenez Vega, B., Mazo Torres, R., Campos Soler, S. M., & Molina Pazos, R. M. (2005). From Kids and Horses: Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy for Children. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 5(2), 373-383.