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Equine-Assisted Therapy

Young blonde girl stroking a brown horse.  

Equine-assisted therapy is an alternative type of treatment to traditional talk therapy. Equine therapy entails a mental health professional and a horse specialist working with a client to help them to accomplish treatment goals. Equine therapy for teens can help adolescents to work on a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction and low self-esteem. Equine therapy can also be an effective treatment intervention for teens with autism, learning delays, communication issues or sensory processing difficulties.

Teens concerned about the stigma of traditional therapy may be more apt to seek an alternative type of treatment like equine therapy. A teenager can perceive experiential treatments like equine therapy as less threatening and more enticing than traditional forms of treatment. Horses are sensitive, non-judgmental and perceptive creatures that have the ability to pick up and mirror the emotional states around them.

Equine therapy takes place in a low pressure environment and helps adolescents to focus their attention on horses in a calm and low pressure environment. Equine therapy helps adolescents to gain confidence and feel a sense of control.

What is Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy is an experiential form of treatment that incorporates a horse into a person’s mental health treatment. Equine therapy is facilitated by a mental health professional with a specialization in equine therapy, a horse trainer and a horse that can tolerate distractions and unpredictable behaviors. Equine therapy addresses a wide array of mental health diagnoses through interactions with horses.

The history of equine assisted therapy dates back to the ancient Greeks, who coined the term hippotherapy to describe the advantages of riding horses. In the mid 1900s, horses were being used to treat polio and other medical conditions, which began to gain attention from the mental health world. Therapeutic riding approaches were developed for those with disabilities and then evolved into equine therapy.

Equine therapy is used to treat a multitude of mental health issues including:

  • Substance abuse issues
  • ADHD and impulse control
  • Spectrum disorders, such as Asperger’s and autism
  • Depression, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Grief
  • Eating disorders
  • Trauma and PTSD
  • Learning difficulties and sensory processing delays
  • Behavioral problems
  • Socialization difficulties and communication disorders

Types of Equine Therapy

Equine therapy is often used in conjunction with other types of therapies and should never be the only line of treatment. There are several types of equine therapy:

  • Therapeutic horseback riding: Therapeutic horseback riding teaches a person how to maintain control of the horse while riding. Therapeutic horseback riding seeks to help a person to improve coordination, equilibrium, poise, confidence and emotional well-being.
  • Hippotherapy: Hippotherapy is like therapeutic horseback riding, but engages an occupational therapist, speech therapist or physiotherapist. These professionals lead horses in various gait, tempo and directions to help a person strengthen muscle tone.
  • Equine-assisted learning: Equine-assisted learning uses interactions with horses to help a person to raise self-awareness, reveal patterns of behavior and help individuals obtain a different worldview. People develop confidence and learn aspects of nonverbal communication. Education, professional development and personal growth are the three areas of concentration in equine-assisted learning.
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy: Equine-assisted psychotherapy uses riding, vaulting and caring for the horses to help treat emotional, psychological and behavioral problems. The horses are used to help people change the way they think, relate to others, feel and behave.
  • Interactive vaulting, therapeutic carriage driving and equine-assisted activities: Interactive vaulting entails people moving on or around the horse and therapeutic carriage driving uses a horse and carriage to allow individuals to interact and control a horse without riding. These types of equine therapy use shows and parades as part of treatment and are much less commonly used.

Benefits of Equine Therapy

Equine therapy benefits can include psychological, emotional and physical enhancements. Equine therapy can help alleviate psychological distress, reduce tension and stress and enhance cognitive abilities. An individual with anxiety or PTSD can relate well to horses who have similar responses of increased vigilance and sensitivity to perceived danger. This can help people confront trauma and remind them of past feelings of vulnerability. Horses can help people who have been abused or neglected develop trust and bonding, as they can practice being open and vulnerable in a safe environment.

Horses have an inborn tendency to sense human emotions, such as fear, anger and pain and can mirror them back nonjudgmentally. Individuals can identify emotions, project emotions, change perspectives and learn about themselves as horses mirror back what they are sensing. The emotional benefits of equine therapy occur through bonding with horses and can help a person to develop self-awareness, confidence and achieve emotional healing.

Physical benefits of equine therapy include a reduction in blood pressure and heart rate along with the alleviation of physical symptoms of stress and tension. Caring for a horse can elevate the amount of time that a person engages in physical exercise and can increase work ethic. Riding horses can help a person to enhance muscle tone and coordination, increase joint mobility and strengthen the spine.

Equine Therapy and Teen Addiction

Adolescents with addiction often present with co-occurring mental health conditions, social difficulties and impaired relationships. Equine therapy programs can help teenagers learn about healthy communication and socialization patterns, while learning how to develop trust and confidence. Working with horses can help adolescents reduce isolating behaviors and engage in physical work to care for the horses, thus interrupting negative impulses and old habits of substance abuse.

Those struggling with teen addiction commonly have difficulty identifying intense feelings that they previously masked with drugs and alcohol. Equine therapy for drug addiction can help teens share openly with a horse, who is representative of a non-judgmental and friendly listener. Teens that participate in equine therapy programs for addiction can reduce feelings of remorse, shame, doubt and bitterness while empowering them with trust and confidence. In equine therapy, horses mirror emotions so a horse’s behavior can provide information to the adolescent, who can then gain insight into the consequences of their behavior.

How Equine Therapy is Used at Next Generation Village

Teen drug treatment at Next Generation Village keeps the critical components of detox and therapy and enhances treatment with equine therapy assisted therapy activities. Equine therapy is used for learning, feedback, building trust and forming non-judgmental relationships and is especially helpful in assisting those teenagers with other co-occurring conditions.

If your adolescent is struggling with teen addiction and could benefit from equine therapy, please contact Next Generation Village today for more information.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.


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