What Is Equine Therapy?

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You may have heard of pet therapy where your household pets offer a calming or therapeutic effect on your well-being. You may associate animal therapy with cats or dogs and other small pets in your house. Even if you understand the therapeutic effects of those animals, how do horses get into the picture? You might be surprised how this large farm animal has evolved into the center of a treatment plan for those with mental disorders, a history of substance abuse, or victims of abuse.

Where Did Equine Therapy Come From?

This may seem like a new phenomenon, but it has a long history of benefits. Would you believe the ancient Greeks utilized their brand of equine therapy and recognized the benefits of horseback riding in 600 B.C.? They had a different name for it, calling it “hippotherapy,” for the Greek word “hippo” meaning “horse.” You could argue that because the Greeks did it, it’s one of the oldest forms of any kind of therapy.

Fast forward to 1960 when this form of therapy re-emerged as a treatment for polio and other physical disabilities. That year, the United States and Canada formed the Community Association of Riding for the Disabled. It may have started as a form of recreation, but branched out to treat mental issues such as depression, anxiety, autism, and developmental disabilities such as Down’s Syndrome.

Isn’t It Better to Have a Small Animal for a Therapeutic Pet?

Some people would prefer to have a small pet as a therapy animal that they can hold or keep at home. However, many people prefer horses and Equine–Assisted Therapy (EAT) because many of the skills required to work with horses mimic skills you need with people.

For instance, approaching a horse can sometimes seem scary, much like approaching people can be an intimidating prospect at times. They are bigger than you. They can kick you. When riding them, they can buck you off. Essentially, they can hurt you.

When you do something that horses don’t like, their feedback is immediate. You have to learn their boundaries and develop the confidence to care for horses. Because of the similarities to humans, developing a connection is an important part of equine-assisted therapies.

How Are Horses Used?

Equine therapy isn’t simply going horseback riding. When you first start this treatment you will likely start by grooming the horse and establishing trust. Because you have to stay focused on what you’re doing, it takes your mind off of a lot of the other worries and stress you may be feeling as a part of your recovery from addiction or a mental health disorder.

That alone can be therapeutic but you can also adapt cognitive therapy to an equine-assisted treatment program. How? Say you suffer from an anxiety disorder. You may notice that the animal instinct of a horse recognizes your anxiety, becomes alert, and something makes them anxious. Someone specialized in EAT and cognitive therapy can use the horse’s responses to spark a discussion about how your anxiety affects you.

By focusing on the horse’s anxiety, many patients will feel more comfortable talking about their own anxiety when it’s projected onto something else–in this case, the horse. This also works for many disorders because anxiety is so common when trying to make drastic changes in your lifestyle such as sobriety.

At a more fundamental level, someone experiencing anxiety may find taking care of or riding a horse to be outside their comfort zone. In that case, there is a direct connection to learning how to cope with their anxiety or stress and the therapeutic effects of caring for horses.

Who Shouldn’t Engage in Equine Therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy isn’t for everyone. If you are allergic to horses or their environment, you will likely need to find other forms of treatment. Even though horses used for equine therapy are specially trained, there is an element of danger involved in handling an animal that is bigger than you, just as there is an element of danger in getting in a car.

Also, if you are concerned that a physical condition might be exacerbated by equine therapy, always consult your doctor first to make sure it’s okay to ride or care for horses.

Barring those circumstances, equine-assisted therapy can help you develop the skills you’ll need to manage your mental illness or substance use disorder. Even watching a beautiful horse run through an open meadow can be soothing, but imagine riding along and developing a bond with this gentle creature. Equine therapy can be one of the most rewarding holistic treatments in rehabilitation and may inspire you to continue a lifelong love for horses.

Equine therapy has become very popular for treating a variety of disorders, ranging from developmental disabilities to substance abuse. Learning to care for and ride a horse builds self-esteem and can have a recreational and therapeutic effect on those who try it. You may have seen it used for rehabilitation in movies like 28 Days. Sometimes the most therapeutic animals aren’t the small ones you can hold, like dogs or cats. Equine-assisted therapy does beyond companionship to help you develop real people skills. Here at Everlast Recovery Center, we use equine-assisted therapy as part of our treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. It’s only part of our many holistic programs we offer, including yoga and art. We also offer professional counseling to help you rebuild your life, all in our homey Riverside, California facility complete with homestyle meals and caring staff. We can help you find new hope and life. Call us today and learn how we can help at 866-DETOX-25, (866-338-6925).

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