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What is Equine-Assisted Therapy?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
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  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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Equine-assisted therapy or hippotherapy is a type of therapy which integrates horses into the treatment process. It is used in a variety of therapy fields; horses can help people with physical issues, speech problems, behavioral issues, emotional problems, and other disabilities. Therapeutic riding programs can be found all over the world, with most equine-assisted therapy centers having a specific focus. Graduates of such programs often express appreciation for the process, crediting their therapy with some later accomplishments.

Studies have suggested that humans benefit from regular contact with animals, and a number of different species from chickens to elephants are utilized in therapy programs. Many humans have an especially unique and intimate relationship with the horse, thanks to the long association of people and horses. Horses symbolize freedom for many people, and many riders say that they have deep connections with their animals; equine-assisted therapy harnesses the connection between people and horses, for mutual benefit.

In physical therapy, patients develop muscle groups by riding horses. As they grow more confident and experienced, they can respond to subtle changes in the horse's movement, developing core muscles, extending their range of motion, and increasing their overall confidence. Hippotherapy can also be used by speech pathologists, especially in the case of communication disorders with a behavioral component.

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Many equine-assisted therapy programs focus on behavioral problems. Horses can serve as a silent intermediary, acting as teachers in facilitated exercises, either in groups or alone. For example, a group of convicts might be asked to solve a problem relating to a horse, such as teaching the horse to run a course of jumps. During the session, the members of the group learn to communicate with each other and to work cooperatively.

Horses are also used in occupational therapy, helping people develop skills which will help them later in life. Equine-assisted therapy can help people communicate, develop fine motor skills, learn to approach problems in new ways, and it can foster understanding and compassion for diverse people and animals. You may also see equine-assisted therapy in programs which are designed to help disabled people and troubled teens, helping them grow confidence in a supportive, friendly environment.

The horses used in equine-assisted therapy receive special training, and they are typically put through a series of extensive tests to ensure that they are suited for the job. A good therapy horse is extremely patient and calm, with the ability to cope with a wide range of people and situations.

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julies
Post 7

I have heard of many different uses of horse therapy, but never realized this could be used for speech therapy. Having a college background in psychology, I find this very fascinating.

I know many times it is easier to talk to your pets than it is a human being. You know they will listen without judging or questioning. I imagine there is a similar concept in using horses to help with communication disorders.

Being around the horses would be considered a 'safe' place to be and that helps open up the lines of communication.

Are there very many equine jobs available in this area of therapy? It sounds like it would take the combined effort of someone who knew about behavioral problems and someone who was familiar with horses.

sunshined
Post 6

One of my best friends is the director of a horse facility where they offer horse assisted therapy for kids who have autism.

Many of these kids struggle in social situations, but they feel right at home around horses. She says many of the horses sense these kids need an extra dose of love and guidance.

Working with the horses can really help them feel better about themselves and also help with their coordination skills.

For the kids that come consistently every week, they really develop a bond with 'their' horse. This gives them a sense of belonging and something they feel responsible for.

My friend said there is a huge difference in the behavior of the kids at the end of a training program compared to the first day they come.

golf07
Post 5

I am familiar with more than horse ranch where they use equine assisted learning to work with troubled kids.

There are many positive benefits involved with this as long as there is a responsible adult or trainer there for guidance.

For many kids that come from troubled homes, horse therapy is exactly the thing they need to help them. Not only does it teach them responsibility in caring for the horse, but there are many lessons in trust that are learned.

When the kids recognize that bond for the first time, and understand the relationship of trust they have with the horse, it can be life-changing for them.

It always amazes me that an animal that can be so strong and yet gentle at the same time can also be therapeutic for so many situations.

LisaLou
Post 4

I can certainly understand the connection between people and horses. We have had horses for many years, and I would be very sad if I didn't have them. I have always said that horse riding is therapy at its best.

For me, there is nothing more therapeutic than spending time on the back of my horse. When you have a strong bond with your horse, there is a connection there that is hard to describe.

When my sister-in-law was going through a depression, we took a couple of our gentle horses to her place. They lived in the country and had a place for horses, but hadn't owned any for several years.

These horses were like therapy

for her. They decreased her anxiety level and increased her confidence. She would spend hours with these horses and this therapy was good for both her and the horses.

Today she is a different person and I attribute most of that to the horse therapy. There is something about the unconditional love a horse gives that can't be put into words.

orangey03
Post 3

@shell4life - You are right about that. I’m glad the therapist caught the guy kicking the horse.

It is a good thing for both patients and the animals that equine-assisted therapy programs have a professional horse trainer and a therapist on location. That way, one person can concentrate on what is good for the horse, while the other can focus on what is good for the patient, though I’m sure each does a little of both.

I wouldn’t feel comfortable with my horse being used to assist troubled youth. However, I would be fine with her helping someone with physical therapy.

lighth0se33
Post 2

I have a lot of faith in equine-assisted psychotherapy. I suffered from severe depression years ago, and I heard about this type of treatment. Since I felt a connection to horses, I decided to give it a try.

I had been through a lot in several of my past relationships that left me fearful of rejection. The horse accepted me exactly as I was, and I knew that he didn’t care how I looked.

My therapist said that she could tell a lot about me just by how I acted toward the horse and how he reacted to me. I felt happier when I was interacting with him, and this gave me hope.

shell4life
Post 1

I think that using horses in therapy is great, as long as the patient is an animal lover. Some people have no feelings for animals whatsoever, and they should not even be allowed near them. However, for those people who feel a kinship with animals and are capable of loving them, this type of therapy could make a world of difference.

My brother participated in group therapy with horses and a few other people, and it helped him a lot. He was a rebellious teenager, and I think that working with the horse helped him develop his sensitive side. He learned to care about something other than himself.

However, another guy in the group felt no compassion for animals at all. He actually kicked the horse when he thought the therapist wasn’t looking. So, the therapist kicked him right out of the group.

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