What is Equine Therapy?
Equine Therapy, also called Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy, or Equestrian Therapy, is a behavioral health modality that incorporates contact with horses into treatment.
Equine therapy may involve riding horses or simply interacting with them, observing them and experiencing the calming, connecting effects that horses have for many people.
Exposure to the beauty of horses and how it makes humans feel to be around them has been anecdotally understood for many hundreds of years. Equine Therapy formally incorporates these benefits into therapy in a structured way.
In order for Equine activities to qualify as therapy, the facilitator must be an equine specialist as well as someone who has undergone extensive mental health education and training, to ensure that contact is targeted and psychotherapeutic. Sometimes these two functions can be provided two different people, as when a psychotherapist works together with an equine specialist to provide complete treatment.
Equine Therapy has been used to treat the symptoms of addiction, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and many other kinds of suffering affecting women. It is believed to work through the mechanism of promoting empathy, self-awareness, and confidence. It affects pathways of the nervous system and works on the mechanisms of co-regulation, in part, as well as through physical contact and the beneficial effects of physical activity and time out of doors.
Equine Therapy has been used also to treat physical health conditions and forms of medical disability and is considered, overall, to have many wide-ranging applications related to bringing holistic health and balance.
At Villa Kali Ma, we offer Equine Therapy as a part of our mental health treatment programs, our trauma work, and our addiction recovery offerings. We do this because we’ve experienced firsthand the ways that Equine Therapy helps integrate healing lessons around health, happiness, and sustainable recovery. We also include Equine Therapy in recognition of the growing body of evidence indicating its healing potential.
How does Equine Therapy help during recovery?
Equine Therapy has been demonstrated to assist women who are seeking to recover from trauma, mental health struggles, and/or addiction, and is especially effective when used in combination with a comprehensive treatment program that addresses all aspects of being.
Equine Therapy works because horses naturally pick up on the moods, emotions, and energies of human beings. The specific horses and ponies used in Equine Therapy are chosen and trained for traits like patience and calm, as well as a great ability to not be disturbed by any discordant energies presented by a patient of the treatment.
Because the horses that are used in Equine Therapy are steady, settled, and emotionally attuned to the person receiving treatment, they can serve as a source of nervous system co-regulation.
Horses are naturally known to be tapped into subtle signals, are very intuitive, and are able to sense what people need and feel. For these reasons, horses and ponies that are trained to assist in Equine Therapy can help hold, modulate, and reduce chaotic emotional energies being experienced in the nervous systems of clients who are struggling with mental health problems, trauma, and addiction.
The wordless, soothing bond of connection created between an Equine Therapy horse and the recipient of treatment is an experiential learning for the client, who is given the opportunity to feel what deep, calming bonding with a safe other feels like.
This deep learning then is translatable to other areas of life experience, having deeply positive knock-on effects in the realm of relationships as well as in the personal ability to self-regulate. For many wounded women, the experience of connecting without words with an Equine Therapy horse conveys for the first time what calm holding and nonjudgmental witnessing feel like in the nervous system.
The benefits of Equine Therapy
Equine Therapy is associated with positive changes in a variety of domains. It is noted for its ability to alleviate symptoms of PTSD, as well as reduce stress. Equine Therapy helps with depression and anxiety both and is linked to an improved ability to learn and form new, positive patterns and habits across all areas of one’s life.
For women who have a tendency to become ensnared in destructive relationship patterns, Equine Therapy is helpful for correcting one’s emotional experience of closeness, appropriate boundaries, and healed trust in interpersonal interactions.
Equine Therapy is believed to calm emotional distress and to have long-lasting effects by changing the ways that negative emotions are processed in the patient’s nervous system. Through sessions of Equine Therapy, we can internalize mechanisms of reducing and releasing over-charged distressing emotional sensations. This means we self-restore to states of safety and well-being. The implications of this factor suggest that Equine Therapy is a strong trauma modality.
Villa Kali Ma includes Equine Therapy in part for this purpose, because that which has wounded us the most is often pre-verbal and may respond better to interventions that assist and support the body to release pain and heal wounds without having to verbally explain every detail of the disturbing memories.
In addition, practitioners of Equine Therapy share the observation that Equine Therapy leads to the following positive effects:
- Greater emotional awareness, empathy, and self-understanding
- Improved self-esteem, assertiveness and confidence
- Ability to form better bonds with others and maintain relationships over time
- Greater trust, in oneself and also in others
- Practicality and problem-solving skills
- Greater willingness to explore, experiment, and learn through interacting with the physical and natural world
Types of Equine Therapy activities
There are several ways of interacting with horses and ponies that may be used in a course of Equine Therapy treatment.
Equine-assisted Learning is a category of Equine Therapy activities that is centered on developing what are called “life skills” through interactions with horses. Life skills such as impulse control, emotional self-regulation, and discerning somatic boundaries are possible to develop through working with horses therapeutically.
Additionally, through learning and practicing specific equestrian activities and skills involved with caring for horses, such as learning how to bathe, feed, groom, lead horses and ride them, people in Equine Therapy programs are able to have the experience of facing challenges, thereby developing confidence, self-esteem, and more positive outlooks on life at large through overcoming them.
These skills – confidence, impulse control, and emotional self-regulation – greatly empower us to navigate through other aspects of our lives, as well, which is why they are considered life skills.
We can discover previously unknown potentials for better focus, self-mastery, and general effectiveness, which helps us do our best in school, work, and relationships with others.
Hippotherapy is another category of Equine Therapy, which focuses on the ways that the movements of horses can be used to help with sensory processing. This operates through the ways that our nervous systems are able to understand and learn from the nervous systems of horses.
Hippotherapy is usually used with people who might seek occupational therapy or speech therapy and works with those of us who are overcoming a motor or neurological disability. The mechanisms that make hippotherapy successful, however, work on anyone and can provide benefits for anyone seeking greater coherence and reconnection between body and mind internally.
Therapeutic horseback riding is also used in Equine Therapy, and it involves the activities and benefits related to learning over time to ride horses. With support from an Equine Therapy practitioner, horseback riding leads to deep bonds of communication between animal and rider. It is also a pathway for improving self-confidence, and greater feelings of security in the physical body, and has positive effects on the nervous system as rider and horse synch in shared rhythms.
Finally, there is a version of Equine Therapy known as Equine-assisted Psychotherapy, which directly works with clients to meet psychotherapeutic goals, in an equestrian setting. Equine-assisted Psychotherapy activities are tailored towards reducing symptoms associated with trauma, mental health problems, and substance use disorders.
As such, activities and interactions with horses are shaped towards learning how to reset the nervous system to peace and safety after activation into fight-flight states, how to stop and redirect negative loops of recovery-interfering thoughts and behaviors, and improving feelings of relatedness and belonging.
Equine Therapy options
At Villa Kali Ma, Equine Therapy is an integrated part of our holistic treatment program for women. We use Equine Therapy in our offerings for women who are recovering from trauma, mental health struggles, addiction, and any combination of these three factors. Equine Therapy is available through our residential treatment program, as well as in our Outpatient offers for women in the community.
If treatment here at Villa Kali Ma isn’t accessible for you at the moment, you may be able to participate in Equine Therapy locally in your area. More and more Equine Therapy centers are popping up around the United States. Look for someone who seems credible and safe to you, and pay attention to how you feel, because Equine Therapists need to feel trustworthy and appropriately experienced in order to help you.
Equine Therapy holds much promise as a standalone therapy and can provide many benefits.
If you are looking into Equine Therapy specifically to address your mental health, addiction, or trauma challenges, however, we do encourage you to also seek help in the form of a structured treatment program that includes psychotherapy as well. We recommend this because Equine Therapy is most powerfully effective for these types of problems when used in combination with a whole package of treatment modalities.