Equine Therapy: Healing Horses

Posted on July 27th, 2009

By Colin Gilbert

Equine therapy is known primarily for its success in helping people with physical and mental disabilities. But new programs are demonstrating that equine-assisted forms of therapy can also strengthen those recovering from trauma, mental illness, and addiction.

The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has pioneered equine therapy efforts since 1969. As of the end of 2008, NARHA had more than 700 centers operating worldwide, with thousands of volunteers, instructors, and equines offering relief to more than 40,000 children and adults.

In recent years, new avenues of equine therapy have emerged as effective in addressing mental health challenges and behavioral issues. In 1996, NARHA founded the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA), which offers equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) to people suffering from illnesses like anxiety and depression, as well as those recovering from addiction and trauma.

Horses are especially valuable in the therapeutic process because of their acute sensitivity to human behavior. Even subtle signs of stress, like tense body language or a racing heart, are detected by horses, and the sympathetic animals clearly respond to such signals.

According to Dr. Nancy Coyne, a psychiatrist and passionate equine therapist, horses can mirror the psychophysical state of those around them. They offer a trusting bond to the person who is willing to trust them in return. In this way, meaningful relationships between human and horse can help build confidence, joy, and perspective in the lives of those seeking recovery.

Another recent application of equine therapy focuses on lifting damaged war veterans out of post-traumatic stress disorder. One Arizona veteran, Sgt. Richard Quinn, returned from Iraq in 2007 with severe mental scars. Plagued with anxiety from his horrifying combat experience, he would routinely cry in his sleep and wake up drenched in sweat. Quinn was skeptical when first told about equine therapy, but he quickly became a believer after a few productive sessions, admitting that he soon “started feeling more relaxed and at ease.”

One common EFP exercise requires that the participant enter a horse’s arena with nothing but a halter. The participant is simply instructed to catch the horse with the halter, and the ensuing scene reveals insights into the individual’s inner struggles. If the person is edgy, afraid, or too aggressive, the horse will not cooperate. Only when the person calms down and becomes sensitive to the horse’s temperament will it oblige. The exercise forces the troubled individual to engage with the horse on an emotional level, and the gratification of accomplishing the task encourages a sense of camaraderie between man and beast.

Although some members in the medical mainstream are still reluctant to accept equine therapy as a valid form of treatment, many satisfied customers are spreading the word.

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