Equestrian therapy (also known as equine therapy or Equine-Assisted Therapy [EAT]) is a form of therapy that makes use of horses to help promote emotional growth. Equestrian therapy is particularly applied to patients with ADD, anxiety, autism, dementia, delay in mental development, down syndrome and other genetic syndromes, depression, trauma and brain injuries, behavior and abuse issues and other mental health issues.
In many instances, riders with disabilities have proven their remarkable equestrian skills in various national and international competitions. This is the reason why equestrian therapy has been recognized as an important area in the medical field in many countries.
Equestrian or equine therapy is also an effective technique for many therapists to teach troubled youth on how they learn, react and follow instructions. For example in a beginners’ horse therapy, the students were asked to get the horse move outside of a circle without even touching it. Students tried to clap, yell and whistle but the horse didn’t heed the signal. In the same manner, parents, friends and others who are part of a troubled youth’s therapy would learn that yelling, clapping and forcing would notbe the best way to make the person do something.
Why horses for therapy
Horses are the most popularly used animal for therapy although elephants, dolphins, cats and dogs may also be used. This is because, horses have the ability to respond immediately and give feedback to the rider’s action or behavior. Horses are also able to mirror the rider’s emotion.
The basis of the therapy is that because horses behave similarly like human beings do in their social and responsive behavior; it is always easy for patients to establish connection with the horse.
History of equestrian therapy
Ancient Greek literature mentioned the use of horse-back riding as therapy. In 600 BC, Orbasis documented the therapeutic benefit of horse riding. In Scandinavia, during the outbreak of poliomyelitis in 1946, equestrian therapy was introduced.
The founding of the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled (CARD) started therapeutic riding in the USA and Canada in 1960. It has become a recreation and a motivational activity for the disabled while at the same time a therapy for them. The oldest-known center for disabled people in the US was established in 1969 Michigan, the Cheff Therapeutic Riding center for the Handicapped.
In the same year, to address the need for an advisory body for the handicapped across the USA and the neighboring countries, The North American Riding for Handicapped Association (NARHA) was established. The Association is responsible in providing safety guidelines and training, gives therapeutic certification to riding instructors and approving therapeutic riding centers before they operate.
Therapeutic benefits of equestrian training
People with cognitive, psycho-motor and behavioral disabilities have shown positive results when equestrian or equine therapy is taught correctly by certified equine therapists. Just like other therapies such as physical, occupational and speech-language therapy, people with disabilities are being helped or assisted by certified therapists to cope with their disability like regular or normal people can. However, equine therapy combines all three in such a way that the patients or students do not feel that they are actually under therapy.
In the process, equestrian or equine therapy aims for its patients or students to:
- Build sense of self-worth, self-concept
- Improve communication
- Build trust and self-efficiency
- Develop socialization skills and decrease isolation
- Learn impulse control and emotional management
- Set perspective
- Learn their limits or boundaries.
Equine therapeutic activities
What are the equine-related activities for therapeutic purposes? The activities are not limited to horseback riding. Many students may feel intimidated by the horse’s size and features and may take some time to develop trust when around the horse. So included in the therapy program are lessons on horse care, horse grooming, saddling and basic equestrian.
How does equine therapist suit the activity to the patient’s needs? The process or technique to be applied during the session depends on the type of disorder and its severity. But the primary techniques are:
- Cognitive therapy
- Practicing activities
- Activity scheduling
- Play therapy
- Storytelling and talk therapy
In all equine activities, safety is the primary concern. Therapists ensure that patients or students are wearing helmets and other protective gears in case they fall from the horse during the session.
In equine-assisted therapies (EAT), the targeted skills are fine motor, large motor or large muscle groups, communication and other behavioral skills in the form of therapeutic procedures such as:
- Equine-facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP)
- Equine-assisted Psychotherapy
- Therapeutic Horseback Riding
Watch this video from Oprah Show on how equine therapy helps an army veteran cope with post traumatic stress.