Riding horses can be a fun and social event for individuals; equine therapy can also provide an alternative to clients who are reluctant to process mental health issues in the office setting. Building a relationship with an animal that is about 1200 pounds can be rewarding and healing for many individuals struggling with emotional challenges. Horses are great teachers and can help people learn how to handle different situations because there is direct correlation between clients' actions and the reactions of the horses.
Working with horses teaches people about themselves and allows a mental health professional to observe dysfunctional patterns of behavior, assist in making adjustments and promote healthy relationships. Horses are forgiving and non-judgmental, thus clients have a way of safely practicing effective ways to communicate and relate to another living being. As horses react to the behaviors of the clients, clients are able to become more aware of their emotional states and patterns of behavior. Working through the issues with the horses helps clients gain insights into the obstacles of their healing.
The Process of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
Equine assisted psychotherapy is conducted with trained professionals in the mental health and equine fields. Some professionals are cross- trained, but others work as a team with one trained as a certified equine assistant therapist and the other a licensed mental health therapist. It is also possible that one or both of the therapists could be an intern under supervision of a licensed or certified professional.
The process usually begins with the client establishing a relationship with the horse on the ground and progresses into nurturing that relationship. It may eventually lead to actually riding the horse in a contained area, but does not always do so. Ground work includes grooming, longeing, and "joining up" with the horse. It may involve taking the horse through various exercises of maneuvers and patterns.
As the client interacts with the horse, professionals ask questions based upon what is being revealed through the interaction. Individuals will at times receive one-on-one attention within the group setting. At the end of each encounter or session with the horse, the clients are given time to process the experience with the therapists, allowing them the opportunity to integrate insights and progress in their treatment.
Benefits of Equine Therapy and Therapeutic Riding
While equine therapy was originally used as a tool to help physically impaired individuals, it has recently become more widely used for its psychological therapeutic benefits. There are psychological and emotional benefits of equine therapy, especially for children and youth. Children and youth often find it much easier to relate to an animal than to another person when trying to process trauma. M
It has been documented that when people interact with animals they lower their blood pressure and heart rate; increase beta-endorphin levels, decrease stress levels, and reduce feelings of tension, hostility, anxiety and anger. Documentation also shows improvement in social functioning and an increase in feelings of trust, patience, empowerment and self-esteem when individuals interact with animals. Horses, because of their sheer size, add to these benefits.
Horses can help develop responsibility, respect, empathy, and confidence in children and youth. The bond helps them learn unconditional acceptance and improve communication skills, assertiveness and self-control. When the client effectively communicates with the horse, it requires patience, understanding, attention, consistency and forgiveness; all tools the client can use in his or her daily lives.
Clients of the Horse Therapy Programs
Clients who have experienced traumas are good candidates for equine assisted therapy. In Colorado, an organization called Combat Veterans Cowboy Up has established an equine assisted therapy program to help combat veterans overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This program is relatively new, but has helped dozens of veterans heal through interactions between clients and horses. The founder, John Nash, was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 2006 a
What to Look for When Considering an Equine Assisted Therapy Program
Not every horse has the temperament for a therapy program or for working with a specific population. When considering participation in horse therapy, it is important to ask questions about the horses being used such as age, temperament, breed and interaction history. Just as important as the horses being used is the professionals and their credentials. Professionals should be specifically trained in equine therapy.
Make sure that the process of the program is understood as to what participants will actually do. Riding is not the focus of the therapy. If participants are looking for riding lessons, equine therapy is not the program. Request information regarding liability for accidental injuries and make sure to thoroughly read any documents before signing.
Equine assisted therapy is a great alternative to traditional psychotherapy. Much can be learned and gained from the experience.
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