Equine-assisted therapy (EAT), also called horse therapy, has been around for centuries. Recently, though, it has become increasingly popular worldwide. This type of therapy goes far beyond just riding horses. It includes several variants, such as hippotherapy that treats occupational, physical, and speech ailments, and equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) that treats mental disorders. Let’s take a look at the science behind equine-assisted therapy and its benefits.
The History of Equine-assisted Therapy
While some may think of equine-assisted therapy as New Age medicine, somewhere between 460 and 377 B.C. Hippocrates wrote about the physical benefits of horses. In 1898, Florence Nightingale wrote of companion animals—those that bring health benefits to humans and invalids.
Fast-forward to the 1960s when therapeutic riding centers began opening throughout Europe, Canada, and the United States. During this time horse therapy became more accepted in countries around the world, including Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Today, therapy through interaction with horses is widely accepted and used for a variety of issues.
Types of Equine-Assisted Services
Equine-assisted therapy is a blanket term that covers a wide range of mental, physical, occupational, and speech therapies that center around horses. Equine-assisted therapy encompasses riding horses, petting or caring for horses, or being in an environment with horses.
One well-established equine-assisted service (EAS) has the unlikely name of hippotherapy.
The American Hippotherapy Association, Inc. (AHA) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the goal of educating the medical field about the therapeutic benefits of horses and incorporating equine-assisted therapy with treatments provided by licensed health care providers. AHA describes hippotherapy as “the purposeful manipulation of equine movement as a therapy tool to engage sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems to promote functional outcomes.”
Therapeutic driving, another popular form of equine-assisted therapy, involves driving a horse carriage or buggy as an alternative to riding a horse. Using a carriage provides a therapeutic experience with horses for those unable to ride due to balance issues, weight, or other reasons. Participants experience a range of movements and sensorimotor experiences and learn such things as harnessing and driving and safety issues.
Equine-assisted learning (EAL), according to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International, provides an opportunity for participants to learn “trust, respect, honesty and communication” through working with a horse. The fact that horses use nonverbal communication allows participants to understand how this mode of communication impacts others. Horses also have a good sense of their surroundings and teach the same skill to humans.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) involves collaboration between a licensed therapist, horses, and a horse specialist to treat patients in an experiential manner similar to that of other established therapies, such as play therapy and art therapy. According to the Equine Education Foundation, horses are masters “at reading body language, intent, and emotion” and their “complete and honest feedback” makes EAP “so powerful.” During EAP sessions, the primary feedback comes from the horse, not from the therapist.
Enya Carter sums up her childhood experiences with equine-assisted therapy as follows:
"Although I haven’t ridden horses for years, the impact of equine-assisted therapy has stayed with me. Horseback riding gave me freedom and independence that I couldn’t have on the ground. As a young child with cerebral palsy, I frequently struggled to keep up with my peers. Any time my classmates and I played a team sport in P.E., I felt that there was no point in me being on the team at all.
But horseback riding changed that. When my horse and I set off at a trot around the barn ring, I could go faster than any of my friends did on their bikes. When I rode horses, I could participate in competitions and even win prizes. For the little kid who felt useless in P.E., that was huge.
I also made friends in my horseback riding lesson—not with the people, but with the horses. I was a kid who daydreamed often and found kinship with a chestnut horse named Woody, who would randomly stop walking and stare out the window. For disabled kids who face so much judgment from their peers, horses are perfect friends. Horses only care that you feed them and treat them well.
There are also the physical benefits of horseback riding like improving one’s posture and balance. But in my opinion, the most important benefits come from the freedom and confidence disabled kids get when we ride horses—especially in a world that isn’t built for us."
The Science of Equine-Assisted Therapy
While anyone can talk for hours about the emotional and physical benefits of owning a horse, what they say may not seem scientifically sound. But, on the contrary, research has shown that horse therapy can improve a person’s well-being, muscle spasticity, self-esteem, balance, and much more.
According to PATH International, the rhythmic motion that horseback riding provides is the key to its many therapeutic benefits. The rhythm is much like the human gait, and it can improve flexibility, balance and muscle strength in riders that have limited mobility.
"The rhythmic motion that horseback riding provides is the key to its many therapeutic benefits."
Equine-assisted therapy has many mental benefits, too. Interacting with animals has been found to release chemicals in the brain, such as oxytocin, that can lead to stress and pain relief, happiness, relaxation, and other welcomed mental states. Medical research shows “improving psychological health for veterans among many other improved outcomes.”
It seems that almost anyone, no matter the issue, can reap benefits from equine-assisted therapy. Here are just a few of the other things EAT may help with:
Physical impairments after a stroke or spinal cord injury
Depression and anxiety
Physical and emotional challenges of Down syndrome, Autism, Multiple Sclerosis, Spina Bifida, Muscular Dystrophy, and Cerebral Palsy
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
How Available Is Horse Therapy?
While it may seem like healing with horses would be relegated to farms and ranches, it is widely available in more urban settings. Stables often offer horse therapy sessions around large metropolitan areas; the typical age to begin horse-assisted therapies in the US is seven years old.
Some researchers caution that evidence in favor of equine therapy for mental health conditions is inconclusive, and it should not entirely replace traditional therapy.
The Future of Equine-Assisted Therapy
At this time, there are about 4,800 certified instructors and 881 therapeutic riding centers globally. As research progresses, medical professionals become more informed, and horse therapy becomes more normalized, equine-assisted therapy could become a go-to treatment for a wide variety of issues in the future.
*Alina Bradford has been a published writer for more than two decades and has contributed her insights to SafeWise, CBS, MTV, Life Science, and many others.