Horses help troubled minds


Horses first became domesticated about 6000 years ago and since then have helped humans in many ways. In addition to being beasts of burden and transportation for people, horses have been used for multiple other things including performances, show jumping, cavalry, racing and even therapy.

Horses today are playing a part in the rehabilitation of people suffering from mental health disorders. Although there are many practitioners of equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) who know the precise approach to take between horse and patient, noone is exactly sure why it works. Even though horses are large animals and some people may feel they might be intimidating, the effect they can have on people with mental health disorders can be magical.

Many behaviors frequently judged by people are completely ignored by horses. A person can have low self-esteem, agitation in social situations, feel depressed or anxious or have poor communication skills. This is no matter for a horse. A horse is non-judgmental and accepts people exactly as they are. Although not yet widely practiced, EAP is a rapidly growing field of treatment.

While scientists understand how the rhythmic movement of horses can assist with motor and sensory problems, how horses help with mental or behavioral issues hasn’t been completely worked out. Interestingly, a person doesn’t even have to ride the horse to benefit from EAP. Simply caring for the animal by grooming, feeding, caring for the equipment and cleaning the stable have been found to have positive benefits. There is no point in attempting to deceive a horse, in some ways they are smarter than we are! Speaking to a horse too loudly or harshly or impatiently will get one absolutely nowhere with the animal.

Horses respond well to a soft but firm voice, gentleness, encouragement and the occasional treat.  They are more highly attuned to environmental activity and sensitive to people’s emotional states than dogs and other animals typically used in assisted therapies. A horse provides feedback by either moving towards the client or away. They are social animals with their own personalities and are most willing to interact when people are engaged and work to build a relationship with them. EAP has been used in the treatment of a wide range of conditions including:

  • Depression/post traumatic stress disorder
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Anxiety
  • Behavioral issues, including aggressive behavior
  • Substance abuse
  • Relationship problems
  • Communication issues

Therapy sessions vary depending upon the therapist and the condition being treated. In general, traditional experiential psychotherapy techniques, such as role playing, role reversal and mirroring, are combined with equine-based activities, including choosing, grooming and walking a horse. Following the activity, patients then process or discuss their feelings and behaviors associated with the session.

Equine therapy in action

A non-profit organization in Barrington, Illinois called Mane in Heaven, utilizes miniature horses the size of Golden Retrievers as therapy animals.

The tiny horses visit hospitals, nursing homes, schools and veteran facilities bringing comfort to disabled people and those who have suffered trauma. Jodie Diegel founded Mane In Heaven with her four horses: Lunar, Turnabout, Mystery and Jenella. When the horses go to work they wear tiny rubber soled shoes made for stuffed toy bears to prevent them slipping on linoleum flooring.  The size of the horses is unexpected and the fact that they are wearing sneakers and a halter with their name written in bling across the nose always gets a reaction. All the horses are approved by Pet Partners, a national organization that determines whether animals and handlers are ready for visits to hospitals.

With 43 volunteers, the group train the mini-horses including desensitizing them to flee from danger, such as that presented by a rolling wheelchair. Diegel says it’s easier to train the horses than the people. The horses do such a good job that they are now being used as guide animals for vision-impaired people. The horses are petted, brushed, loved and hugged by the people they visit and the interaction improves their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

White River Academy acknowledges the hidden treasure of a bond between people and horses.  We offer equine therapy as part of our therapeutic treatment for boys who struggle with substance abuse, mental health disorders or a combination of both called a dual diagnosis. To learn more about the treatment programs and curriculum at our therapeutic boarding school you can call 866-520-0905 today.

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