What Is Equine and Equine-assisted Therapy?

In general, equine therapy is also called EAT (Equine-assisted Therapy) and sometimes called “horse therapy”. This treatment includes various horse activities to promote occupational, physical, and emotional growth in people who suffer from:

  • Anxiety
  • ADHD
  • Autism
  • Dementia
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Developmental delay
  • Depression
  • Genetic syndromes (Down Syndrome)
  • Behavioral issues
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Abuse issues
  • Other mental health problems

In a sense, equine therapy helps individuals build communication, self-efficiency, confidence, perspective, trust, impulse control, social skills like empathy, and learn about boundaries.

Horses have similar behaviors to humans, including responsive and social behaviors. Therefore, it’s relatively easy for patients to create connections with a horse. Equine-assisted therapy has been recognized in the mental health and medical fields by most countries as a way to help both children and adults who are diagnosed with any of the above list.

History of Equine Therapy

Equine therapy goes back to the times when horses were commonly used for therapeutic riding during the time of ancient Greece. Orbasis of Lydia documented its value in 600 B.C. Equine therapy was then introduced in 1946 to Scandinavians after the poliomyelitis outbreak.

In 1960, therapeutic riding was introduced to Canada and the US with CARD (Community Association of Riding of the Disabled). This was a recreational form and a means to help motivate people to learn.

Other animals have been used for therapy purposes, such as dolphins, elephants, dogs, and cats. However, horses became a highly popular option for animal therapy because they offer immediate feedback from the rider’s actions to the handler. Horses can also mirror the handler’s or rider’s feelings. 

Since horses are large and are sometimes intimidating, many equine-assisted therapy treatments use mechanical simulators like REST (Responsive Equine Simulator Therapy).

Whether it’s a live horse or REST, there are many applications in which equine therapy can be used to improve one’s neurological and mental well-being.

Applications for Equine-assisted Therapy

Equine therapy involves more than just riding a horse or a simulated machine horse. In some sessions, you may not touch the simulator or horse at all. The therapist leading your sessions is going to create goals for you to complete. You will also learn to follow the instructor’s directions, ask questions, and more.

There is communication between the instructor and the patient. However, you also have to ‘communicate’ with the simulator to get it to do what’s necessary.

These skills are highly useful for people who struggle with anxiety because they’re often worried about the past or what might happen in the future. Such activities encourage you to be more focused on what’s going on and be present at the moment and not concern yourself too much with the past or future.

Typically, child therapists who use equine-assisted therapy adapt it with play-and-talk and cognitive therapy. Depending on the situation and severity, the therapist can make decisions about the techniques and processes used during the sessions. 

Cognitive Therapy

Cognitive therapy is often used for anxiety. Horses can easily sense danger and respond to their surroundings with a heightened awareness. They may even try to flee if that situation appears to be dangerous. Individuals who suffer from anxiety also experience those things. Ultimately, when they see the horse or simulator doing that, it can help them open up about their feelings to the therapist.

When you focus on the simulator’s apprehension instead of your own, you can reduce your anxious responses and start challenging those “automatic” thoughts. 

Practicing Activities

Many times, individuals who experience anxiety avoid challenging activities and anything out of their comfort zones. When you use equine-assisted therapy, you can choose an activity that’s outside of your skill level. You get appropriate assistance from the therapist and can talk about feelings and thoughts that occur from those activities. 

Activity Scheduling

Most people who struggle with anxiety avoid responsibilities that they used to perform daily because they’re too overwhelmed or scared. However, the more you avoid them, the more anxiety you feel about doing those activities.

If you plan to care for the simulated horse or ride it, you can learn about flexibility and responsibility. The settings for the simulator could be changed at any time. Therefore, you must stop focusing on your anxiety and return to the structure throughout your day.

Play Therapy or Storytelling

A horse’s characteristics can be identifiable to people, such as social drive, freedom, curiosity, and play. With play therapy, you can easily set limits and create relationships. You may also use storytelling to develop a story about what the simulator ‘thinks’ to convey emotion. This can be a great tool to help with creativity and language skills.

Unique Features of REST

The REST system or simulator can play a unique role in your therapy sessions. These include:

Unbiased and Nonjudgmental

Horses and the simulators used by some therapists react to your emotions and behaviors and aren’t biased by any past mistakes or your physical appearance. This can be extremely helpful to boost self-confidence and self-esteem.

Mirroring and Feedback

Horses are naturally a herd animal and prey to many predators. Therefore, they’re sensitive and vigilant. This can be programmed into the simulators. The feedback shown from the horse or simulator helps your therapist understand more about you. Plus, the simulator can mirror your behavior, movements, and emotions. You become more aware of yourself and can “feel felt.” 

A metaphor for Real Life

Typically, a therapist uses the horse or simulator as a metaphor to deal with other issues. That is why equine treatment can be applicable to real-life problems. For example, a therapist could help the patient work out issues through the horse. One child might have significant challenges discussing how they felt about moving to a new state. That child might tell the therapist many ways to help out a horse to feel comfortable about being sold to a new owner. From there, the child understands more about their own situation and can find coping mechanisms for their move.

Conclusion

Equine-assisted therapy has been around for a while and has been shown to work. However, most therapists don’t have access to a horse. Many simulators are now on the market to mimic a horse’s natural behaviors. That can help patients relax and learn about themselves based on what the simulator does. This new therapy treatment can be a great solution for your child or family.

Learn About REST by GAIT

If you’re looking for a responsive horse simulator, check out our Responsive Equine Simulator Therapy chair aka. REST.