Horses and Healing - Introduction to Equine Therapy
Updated: Aug 23, 2019
Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT) and Therapeutic Horseback Riding are used to help people with a variety of issues; physical, mental, and emotional disabilities, attention and behavior issues, and even PTSD can benefit from Equine Therapy.
Some equine therapies involve riding; others involve interactions with the horses, with the human on the ground. Therapists and trained behavior specialists work with the horse in a variety of modalities; some work with more structured treatment plans; others allow for more spontaneous interactions.
Those that work with the human on the ground may involve a variety of interactions with the horse, including observing, touching, grooming the horse, feeding, attaching the harness, leading or following, and connecting in numerous ways. Some practices use the horse as a tool for healing.
Other methods view the horse as co-leading, directing, and instead of having the human “lead the horse,” you might say the horse’s will and desire dictate the flow of interaction. In this style, how the horse responds to the human is an integral part of the therapeutic method. Every method has a slightly different focus, but they all have their goal of healing through gentle interaction with horses.
Here is one group FEEL, Facilitated Equine Expedited Learning. Humans are transformed through the presence of horses and guided interactions.
Horses have been used therapeutically since the ancient Greeks, and the relationship between humans and horses has so entwined that life, as we know it today, would not have been possible without this partnership.
In the last twenty-five years, the field of equine-assisted psychotherapy has become more standardized. The first national group in the United States, the Equine-Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA), now a part the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), formed in 1996. Another group, the Equine Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), formed in 1999. Even as this new field is establishing standards of practice, there is still a great deal of variation among the individual equine therapists and how they practice Equine Therapy.
Who Would Make a Good Therapy Horse?
Horses are specially selected and trained to become Therapy Animals. They need to meet a variety of criteria; for example, they need to be gentle, have a good work ethic, be calm, have a strong, steady gait, be free from injuries that might make therapy work challenging, and enjoy human interaction. Great therapy horses seem to be very adept at reading human emotions. They may have strong opinions as to who they are drawn to, but in general, good therapy horses will seek interaction. Some therapy horses are rescues from professional life, or retired from racing, and in some cases have experienced abuse and neglect. In spite of difficult pasts – and even because of it – some of these horses that might have been otherwise euthanized – can become great therapy horses.
Horses can make great therapeutic partners because they work at a non-verbal level. They are often fully present. Because they are fully in their senses, interacting with them helps humans to move deeper into their own sensory worlds. It helps people feel more connected with their body sensations and the power of the present moment. Just interacting with them at the most basic level, such as touching, or just being near them, can help humans feel more connected with their own bodies and emotions. Being near a horse who enjoys interacting can be a strongly healing, and life-affirming experience.
Exactly how and why interacting with therapy horses is so beneficial to humans often defies logical explanation.
“It is as if we had a Soul Connection, and the horse wakes up that side of ourselves. Being with a horse is like having your heart eased open,” said Carina Cooper, from HEART Healing, a therapeutic horse center in Hawaii.
James French, from England, created a method called The Trust Technique. It is my favorite modality. For this reason, I chose to become a Trust Technique Practitioner. I do sessions with individuals, couples, and groups.
The Trust Technique is based on deep listening to the horse, getting peaceful with the horse, and thus healing happens for both human and horse. In The Trust Technique, we let the horse lead, and always work at the horse's pace. We learn how being present can be the most healing experience for both the horse and the human.
Below is a short video introduction to how The Trust Technique creates a sense of peace that horses love. The human learns how to get into this deep-horse-friendly state of mind, and the horse finds it very relaxing and healing. The horses feel such a deep sense of trust that they lay their heads in his lap. This is James French and some of his students working with rescue horses.
Below is an interview I did with an Equine Therapist in Hawaii.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Animal Consciousness Institute