The Proven Antidote: Equine Therapy

Equestrian | Guide to Polo

The Proven Antidote: Equine Therapy

An old expression is that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a person. Horse therapy relies on this time-tested principle.

Since ancient times, equine therapy has remained a popular solution for many health problems. It is connected with traditional healing through nature. Contrary to popular opinion, not all therapies with horses require riding. Empathy with a fellow-creature helps in soothing the disturbed mind, and reignites hope. It is now proven that people may experience both healing and joy in an environment connected with a horse. However, horses can easily burn out, if they are unsuitable for the job. Hence, therapists make sure they are interested and willing to do the work. As an added measure, it is made sure that the horses are never used as subjects, but rather as active partners. Emily Swisher, an expert in equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) says: “As long as the client is interested in the process, the success rate of equine-facilitated psychotherapy will be high. Almost always, we see an improvement in self-esteem and effective communication, with a reduction in anxiety and depression.” She continues: “EFP is a combination of traditional talk therapy, along with the interaction of the horse. While the client is interacting with the horse, the physical signals produced by the horse are monitored by the therapist. It is most helpful for people experiencing psychological and emotional trauma.”

The client needs to be emotionally and behaviourally regulated. The process is experiential and is helpful for a variety of mental health issues. Swisher says: “Anyone who enjoys being around animals, is looking for an alternative therapy, or wanting unbiased feedback of themselves, may opt for EFP.” Generally, horses that are being retired from a more athletic discipline make wonderful therapy animals.

Terri Jay, a professional animal communicator, says that horses use telepathy or mind-to-mind communication with each other. Therefore, to communicate with them, we need to turn on our telepathic instincts. “I have operated a therapeutic riding program, off and on, for about 35 years. We had kids that couldn’t walk, and take their first steps after riding. We had autistic kids say their first word—“no”—when it was time to get off the horse. Horses are telepathic, and many disabled kids are telepathic too; so, horses and such kids have good conversations. An old expression is that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a person. Nowhere is this truer than in horseback therapy programs,” she says.

Cynthia Nell Ward, owner, and director of Divine Equine, in Kentucky, says: “Volunteering at a therapeutic riding centre, hearing stories from riders and parents, I knew I had to open a centre in my community.” Her experience made her realize that riders can learn empathy faster. “They learn they have more than they thought they had, to share,” she adds.

When we are riding a horse, we are using all our muscles, and our cognitive abilities to move and think at the same time. It strengthens the core of the body, energizes us, and motivates us to learn more.

Stephanie Amick, executive director of Agape Therapeutic Riding Resource, says that unconditional love unites all. The non-profit organization, through Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT), focuses on the physical, mental, behavioural, and social development of people with special needs and youth at risk.

Stephanie states: “Exercise in the fresh air of a farm, away from hospitals, doctors’ office, therapy rooms, or home help promotes well-being. The rider learns that an out-of-control rider means an out-of-control horse. Shouting, crying, and emotional outbursts upset the horse, which in turn frightens the rider. Riders learn to control these emotions and appropriately express them. The rider begins to view him/herself as having control over his/her world, as control over the animal increases.”

Likewise equine therapy can also help with developing leadership skills. Isabelle Hasleder, an Austrian who runs Horse Quotient Leadership, says that training with horses unmasks the emotional state of people. The time spent with horses helps clients experience situations that are outside their comfort zone, and through professional guidance, those moments give them the confidence they need to face challenging situations.

Within these therapeutic methods clients have a key responsibility. They are responsible for the well-being of another living, sensitive being. “When we understand that we have taken the horse out of its natural environment and placed it in a man-made setting, we feel the weight of that responsibility, and treat it as such,” says coach Riyad Gandhy. Such remedial methods help in building self-confidence, social skills, efficiency, perspective, and much more.

Peter Grey, psychology researcher and scholar, once remarked: “We have almost forgotten how strange a thing it is, that such a huge, powerful and intelligent animal as a horse should allow another, far feebler animal, to ride upon its back,” Furthermore, author John Steinbeck rightly puts it: “A man on a horse is spiritually, as well physically bigger than a man on foot.” Yes, horses indeed provide us the wind for our sails, and should be revered for it.