What Is Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine assisted therapy is an alternative therapy often employed in the treatment of mental health issues, including addiction and anxiety, as well as physical health disabilities. It covers a variety of treatments and is used by many different types of medical professionals, including psychologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, social workers and more. Equine assisted therapy is not a new concept and it has very ancient roots. As with any alternative therapy, it often raises concerns among professionals who believe it should not take the place of more evidence-based treatments.

equine therapy

What is the history and origins of equine therapy?

Horses have long been used in a therapeutic capacity, and therapy using horses can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about using horseback riding as a therapy for those with incurable diseases. In the modern age, 17th century medical writers discussed using equine therapy for conditions such as gout, depression and various disorders of the nervous system. As early as 1946, a poliomyelitis outbreak in Scandinavia was partially treated with equine therapy.

The current form of equine therapy began in the 1960s when countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria began to add it as an additional therapy within the confines of regular physical therapy. The treatment was supervised by a physiotherapist and included a horse specifically trained for the task and its handler. The therapist gave directions to the handler in guiding the horse’s movement.

Late in the 1980s, Canadian and American therapists would bring the treatment back to North America after traveling to Germany to learn how it was used and devised. It received formal recognition in the United States in 1992 when the American Hippotherapy Association was conceived.

Riding horses as a therapy received further modern validation when Denmark’s Liz Hartel used the discipline to win Olympic silver in 1952 in dressage, despite being paralyzed from polio. At the same time, Germany was also using it to treat other orthopedic issues like scoliosis. The 1960s saw therapeutic riding centers open throughout North America. With these centers also came the formation of two groups: the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and the Community Association of Riding for the Disabled. As of 2011, the former group is now known as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.

Do therapy horses need any specific training?

Therapy horses receive specific training and have a number of desired traits. Horses selected for training should have three distinct gaits, physical soundness, a gentle temperament and ability to tolerate lots of attention. The horse should have a calm demeanor and a height somewhere between 14 and 16 hands. Breed usually doesn’t matter, though Quarter Horses in particular often have the desired characteristics of therapy horses. Conversely, a more high-strung breed like the Arabian may not be a good choice, but horse personalities vary widely, even within a specific breed.

Once a good therapy horse candidate is identified, it is exposed to the type of work it will be used in during therapy classes. The horses are taught to walk calmly behind the handler’s shoulder and use body language cues to speed up or slow down. Horses are also exposed to a variety of noises, including music, enthusiastic people and toys. Such situations are introduced slowly to therapy horses in training along with much positive reinforcement. Once the horse has shown itself to react calmly and without fear to a range of stimuli used in therapeutic riding classes, then it can be used in a real therapy situation.

How effective is equine therapy?

The effectiveness of equine therapy is widely debated depending on what it’s used for. Scientific literature often cites inadequate data for the usefulness of equine therapy for people with orthopedic issues, or even mental health issues. Many reviews of the discipline argue that the quality of research for its effectiveness is poor, though they also conclude that the treatment doesn’t do any harm either.

However, mental health issues do not always positively respond exclusively to traditional medical treatments either. Sometimes those in treatment for addiction and other behavioral disorders have a difficult time communicating with other people. Horses have distinct personalities just like people, but they are also silent and non-judging. Research has shown that patients interacting with horses have reduced stress, heart rate and blood pressure. They also show increases in positive feelings like patience, trust and self-esteem. Often these patients have a hard time relating to other people, which can make it difficult for psychotherapy to have much effect. These same people often do not have a problem relating to horses or other animals.
Animal Assisted Therapy Horse

Communicating with horses requires much patience and sensitivity. Horses are known to reflect the moods of people they interact with, which requires patients to go outside of themselves to better respond to the horse.

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What other animals are used in therapy?

Horses aren’t the only animals used in this type of therapy. Dogs, cats, birds, and even reptiles can be used in a therapeutic environment. Dogs are still the most popular animal used in a therapy situation. Dogs are natural companion animals and many breeds take well to this type of training. Both large and small breeds of dogs may be used as therapy animals.

Cats are probably the second most commonly used animal but do not have the range of uses like dogs do. Cats may be found in nursing homes especially as they can wander about freely and lay with patients. One recent example of a therapy cat is with Thula the Maine Coon cat who helped a six-year-old girl with severe autism become less withdrawn and more social.

Birds are fairly common as well, and especially parrots. Not only can parrots be taught to speak, but they are known for showing high levels of empathy. Smaller animals like reptiles, hamsters, and rabbits can be used to improve concentration, attention, and motor skills. Taking care of any kind of animal requires a certain amount of focus and affection.

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