Five Benefits of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

As the clinical liaison between Hanbleceya and the Rocking Horse Ranch, people often ask me, “What is Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?” and “How is working with horses helpful?” Of course, as a long-time animal and outdoor aficionado, I am admittedly a bit biased to the benefits of animals, fresh air, and experiential learning.

While there are numerous studies that enumerate the benefits of therapeutically work with animals, it is a bit more difficult to describe the seemingly intangible benefits of Equine Therapy to someone who has never participated in it. So here goes…

  1. Situational awareness and perspective-taking.

    One of the challenges faced by individuals with mental illness, and in particular, schizophrenia, is the ability for the person to look outside his or her “bubble” and make an effort to notice what is going on. Individuals with schizophrenia often manifest negative symptoms of schizophrenia by means of their often apathetic, disconnected presentation—these individuals might look “glazed over,” disinterested and unmotivated to initiate work or common place interactions with others. However, the game changes a bit when you are working with a 1000-1500lb animal. Suddenly, your safety and the animal’s safety are dependent upon the individual’s ability to pay attention to potential safety issues whether they be not walking directly behind the horse or looking ahead to avert potential conflict between the horse one is charged with and an approaching animal. Likewise, the client is presented with an opportunity to practice taking the perspective of the animal, and in doing so, is required to empathize and see his or her own behavior (for good or bad) from the outside.

  2. Creating working understanding of healthy boundaries and in turn, increased assertion with others.

    Related to the point above, clients in Equine Therapy are presented with the opportunity create a working understanding of healthy boundaries and an appreciation for boundaries. Whereas, with human beings, the concept of boundaries are less tangible, boundaries (or lack thereof) become abundantly clear when one is working with a large animal. Horses, like people test boundaries! As such, it is important that you create mutual respect with the animal so that he isn’t running you over you and is doing what you’d like him to do. That said, like our relationships with people, we want the animal to respect us and not fear us. It’s amazing what watching someone with a horse will tell you about how that person does relationships with people. Does the client use treats to “bribe” the horse’s favor? Does the person overuse the crop to motivate the behavior? Or does the client allow the horse to not respect his/her boundaries in favor of wanting the horse to “like” him or her? The goal is to create a balance so that the client learns how to assert him or herself in a respectful manner that in turn, garners the respect of the animal.

  3. Learning how to practice grounding.

    Horses, because they are “prey” animals are built to be intuitive and quick to respond. Their eyes are capable of seeing 180 degrees to spot potential danger and their ears, similarly can rotate to notice the smallest sounds around them. Horses, “spook” easily as an adaptive response to danger. As such, the horse can be a mirror for our behavior. If a client is experiencing strong emotion working with a horse, the horse will pick up on that emotion.

    Often, at Hanbleceya, we work with our clients with schizophrenia, anxiety and bipolar disorder on learning how to practice “grounding.” This refers to the task of relaxing one’s body, calming one’s heart rate and slowing down our breathing. We are literally, calming down the (perhaps over-reactive) “fight or flight” mechanisms in our body. Because horses are so intuitive and naturally anxious, it is imperative that we calm ourselves while working with them. Clients working in Equine Therapy get the opportunity to practice grounding in their body while faced with situations that naturally arouse anxiety (a 1500lb animal will do that!). Over time, it becomes more automatic to calm one’s nervous system down upon entering the arena, the turnout or the stall with a horse.

  4. Empathy.

    Nearly all of the horses at the Rocking Horse Ranch are rescue animals. Each of them has their own story. Some of the horses have been brutally abused, neglected, overworked or starved. It is because of this that they make some of the best therapy animals. In part, upon learning some of the stories, that which on the surface may appear to be problematic behavior (chewing, nipping, being pushy) soon begins to make sense as a survival tool. With this knowledge, clients begin to take a broader view of the animal’s behavior (and of their own). They learn to understand the animal not as “good” or “bad” but as a creature who much like them, engages in maladaptive behavior to get his/her needs met. Clients are challenged to hypothesize about the animal’s needs and find ways to meet those needs while still creating a relationship based on mutual respect and boundaries.

  5. Self-Confidence.

    Lastly, I have seen equine therapy do wonders for a client’s self-confidence. When you work with a horse, your “successes” or “failures” are out for you and the world to see. No matter how much of an “animal person” you are, you will get practice at failing and making mistakes during equine therapy. The neat thing about this, however, is that by taking risks to try new things (and failing at times), clients learn that “failing” isn’t all that scary afterall…and that the rewards of finally being successful after struggling are that much sweeter. Likewise, at times I’ve watched clients reflect upon their own progress in the program—now being entrusted with teaching skills to newer members of the group—and watch them smile about how certain tasks similarly used to be difficult for him or her. As someone who considers herself to be both an “animal person” and a “people person” this is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.