Equine Therapy: What It Is and How It Helps

Published November 20, 2020

Medical and therapeutic professionals everywhere recommend equine therapy for a wide range of conditions and disabilities. With influential organizations like PATH International and Eagala, founded to support and promote equine therapy, the use of horses in medical or psychological treatment is now standard. But what does equine therapy entail, and who does it help?

What Is Equine Therapy?

As a broad term, equine therapy refers to the use of horses in a therapeutic manner. However, there are several forms of equine therapy, and it is recommended for many different things. For example, PATH International was founded in 1969 and primarily focuses on assisting people living with disabilities, whereas Eagala concentrates solely on the use of horses in psychotherapy.

The main types of equine therapy are as follows.

1. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

Horses provide an essential sense of peace during psychotherapy appointments, not least of which is due to the sessions happening outdoors. Counselors also use the horse as a reference point to help the patient explore their emotions or painful situations through the horse’s eyes. Many people find discussing difficult emotions more comfortable with a horse present, which works particularly well with children and young adults.

Caring for a horse is also part of EAP, as it builds routine and provides a positive focus for patients whose lives would otherwise be taken over by grief, trauma, or mental health problems. Grooming, for instance, is cathartic and can help calm distressed patients. Equine care works in conjunction with mindfulness and the concept of being present, further aiding recovery.

Organization: Eagala

2. Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)

Equine-assisted activities aid development in personal, social, and professional contexts. It is used amongst high-risk teenagers and to improve academics. The facilitator uses concepts and metaphors to help students understand personal skills, such as anger management or concentration. However, EAL can also be used with adults to improve professional skills, like teamwork and mindfulness.

In both cases, EAL involves observing the horses’ reactions to the group’s behaviors. These observations can then be analyzed with a view to improvement.

Organizations: PATH International - EAL

3. Hippotherapy

Working alongside occupational and physical therapies, hippotherapy is also known as adaptive riding. Hippotherapy is also used to enhance speech therapy.

Adaptive horseback riding improves the posture, coordination, and movement of the rider. It is often confused with therapeutic riding, but hippotherapy revolves around medically necessary therapy. Therapeutic riding merely teaches people living with disabilities how to ride.

Organizations: American Hippotherapy Association, Inc, PATH International

4. Other equine therapies

You will find many other equine-assisted therapies gathered under the same umbrella term — equine-assisted therapy. This can include miniature horses used as service animals, therapeutic riding, or even therapeutic carriage programs.

Organizations: National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy (NCEFT)

Who does equine therapy help?

With such a wide variety of options, equine therapy can help almost everyone. Some of the conditions and disabilities horses can help with include:

  • Veterans and other people living with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder)
  • People with addiction
  • People with ADHD, autism, or learning disabilities
  • People with physical disabilities
  • People with deafness, blindness, or both
  • People mental health conditions
  • People living with trauma

Why use horses?

Like any animal, horses are unbiased and non-judgmental, which makes discussing painful situations or participating in physical therapies more accessible. However, horses are also useful as a metaphor to help facilitate discussion about trauma, social skills, or even movement and the senses.

Therapists favor horses in particular because of their status as a prey animal. They are always aware of their surroundings and particularly sensitive to sounds and the behaviors of those around them. This makes them ideal for use in teaching behaviors, as well as encouraging mindfulness and concentration.

Equine therapy comes in many forms and can benefit many different people. With several specialist organizations out there, you’ll find plenty of information and support, no matter which type of equine therapy you’re looking for.