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Using Equine-Assisted Therapy for Trauma

Equine-Assisted Therapy

Animals can offer an incredible amount of emotional support. An increasing number of people are turning to emotional support animals such as dogs and cats to help cope with and overcome an array of mental health conditions. But what about horses? 

The use of horses in therapeutic settings is certainly nothing new, but it’s less known than other options. Equine-assisted therapy can offer numerous benefits to those affected by emotional trauma and associated mental health conditions. Working with horses can relieve stress, improve confidence, and build relationship skills.

What is Equine-Assisted Therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy is a type of experiential therapy involving horses. In this type of therapy, therapists use activities and interactions with horses to treat mental health conditions.

Therapy involving horses goes back to Ancient Greece. Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the “Father of Medicine,” wrote about the therapeutic benefits of riding horses more than 2,000 years ago. 

Equine-Assisted TherapyAs a form of therapy, horseback riding was introduced into North America in the 1950s or 1960s. Its original focus was on helping children and adults with disabilities. The use of horses in mental health therapy has evolved and grown in popularity since.

Equine therapy may seem like an unusual concept to those unfamiliar with it. But it’s a prevalent form of treatment in trauma-based mental health recovery.

Equine therapy is much more than just horseback riding. Therapists tailor techniques to each person’s needs. It can include simple interactions and leading a horse on short walks, as well as feeding, grooming, and cleaning.

When therapists use horses in therapy for emotional trauma, they emphasize the relationship and attachment between the individual and the horse.

While therapists use many animals in therapy, horses are among the most beneficial in trauma-informed mental health programs. Their popularity is due to the immediate feedback they provide and the individual connections they build.

Benefits of using horses include:

  • Size. Horses are large and imposing animals. Being around them encourages you to step outside of your comfort zone and work on stress management.
  • Intelligence. Horses are intelligent and sensitive. Connecting with horses requires a calm demeanor, empathy, and for you to develop a level of mutual trust.
  • Response. Horses offer immediate feedback. Horses can sense emotions and will respond accordingly, serving as a mirror to understand feelings you may not be aware of.
  • Neutrality. Horses are non-judgemental and unbiased. They allow you to create a close bond without fear of criticism.
  • Responsibility. Looking after horses requires hard work. They need to be fed, groomed, and cleaned. Attending to their needs requires discipline, structure, and responsibility.

Benefits of Equine Therapy

There are many benefits of equine therapy, especially when processing emotional trauma. Behavior mirroring and non-verbal communication with horses can help you better understand yourself, your emotions, and your relationships with others. Trauma awareness is key to processing and healing.

Working with horses can be particularly beneficial for building relationship skills. Connecting with horses requires you to be calm, centered, and focused. Building up a level of mutual trust can take a lot of time and hard work. This awareness and trust can teach skills necessary for day-to-day interactions.

Skills developed through equine-assisted therapy include:

  • Emotional awareness
  • Confidence and assertiveness 
  • Self-esteem and self-respect
  • Impulse control and stress tolerance
  • Trust and acceptance
  • Non-verbal communication
  • Strength and endurance

Being around horses can also decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation without immediately jumping back into navigating human relationships. Building a connection with a non-judgemental animal can help you open up and learn to trust others. This relationship is a great first step in overcoming emotional trauma and associated mental health conditions.

Who Benefits from Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy can have positive effects on those with issues with confidence, social interactions, and impulse control. Used alongside other treatments, it can benefit many mental health conditions.

Mental health conditions treated with equine-assisted therapy include:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction and substance use disorder
  • Attachment disorders

Because horses demonstrate the ability to make personal connections, they are valuable in family or group therapy and individual sessions. 

Techniques Used in Equine-Assisted Therapy Sessions

Equine-assisted therapy involves techniques that foster safety, consent, choice, self-empowerment, trust, and compassion. Such techniques can help you feel more in control of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors affected by traumatic experiences.

Techniques used in equine therapy include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Focusing on the horse’s emotions and behaviors can help you control your negative thoughts and emotions.
  • Play Therapy. Play can help increase awareness, set boundaries, and build relationships.
  • Role-Playing and Storytelling. These techniques help to identify and convey emotions. 
  • Activity Scheduling. Creates a sense of routine and responsibility that is often missing from the life of someone suffering from a mental health condition.

Equine Therapy at Integrative Life Center

Equine therapy at Integrative Life Center is an innovative trauma-informed approach for treating many mental health conditions. Considering your individual needs and goals, our clinical team will devise a tailored program of sessions and “feet on the ground” interactions with horses to help you on your mental health journey.Contact Integrative Life Center to learn more about equine therapy and schedule a consultation with a member of our team.

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