What Is Equine-Assisted Therapy?

For much of human history, horses have played a key role in the progress of mankind. People have fought wars, escaped danger, delivered mail, plowed fields, pioneered new lands, and achieved countless other accomplishments on horseback. Horses and mankind have a special relationship, and equine-assisted therapy is a form of recovery that recognizes and makes use of this relationship.

What It Is

Equine-assisted therapy is a rehabilitation program for those with psychological, emotional, and/or physical disorders. The clients interact with the horses, and help care for them. Often, riding horseback is part of the program. But generally speaking, equine-assisted therapy is not about horsemanship or riding technique. Concepts such as problem solving, teamwork, and confidence are fostered as participants work together to figure out a resolution to a situation.

For example, one equine-assisted therapy program assembled two teams in a riding arena and told them they had to get their team’s horse to jump over a barrier. They were not allowed to bribe the horse or use any halters, ropes, etc. After several frustrating attempts by each team, they eventually started looking at what they could do rather than what they couldn’t – such as collaborate with other team members or move the barrier to a place where the horse would have to jump it. They learned how to look for the positive in a situation, and to communicate and work with one another to solve a problem.

What It Does

As noted above, equine-assisted therapy is intended to build life skills in individuals for whom this is a challenge. For those with physical disabilities, equine therapy (in the form of riding) can be very effective at building muscles in the trunk and lower extremities.

Confidence can be built as clients interact and peacefully communicate with an animal several times their own size. Overcoming one’s fear or insecurity around the horse acts as a metaphorical lesson for overcoming life’s looming troubles.

The positive emotional effects of working with animals are well-known. Animals’ non-judgmental nature and dependence on humans for their care make them the perfect blend for someone with difficulties. And horses can and do give honest (sometimes painfully so) feedback about a person’s approach and demeanor.

Horses are very sensitive to bodily movements and postures, and clients learn that they can change the horse’s behavior by first changing their own. In other words, horses help the clients see themselves.

Learning a bit about equine-assisted therapy makes it a bit easier to see how the relationship between humans and horses has lasted for so many centuries.