A horse, of course! – The benefits of equine therapy
In general, I don’t give horses much thought one way or the other. (And we can be reasonably sure they haven’t given me much thought either.) But doing the research for this post has led me to appreciate them a whole lot more. It turns out that these four-legged beasts have qualities that are therapeutic for people with a variety of physical and brain-based challenges.
A good summary of what is generally referred to as “equine therapy” is found here. In the types of therapy that can help atypical teens, by interacting with a horse, the patient learns about his/her own internal life, and how it affects other people. This can happen because horses are sensitive to moods and attitudes – it’s an attribute that comes from being a herd animal – and their reactions are honest. A therapist helps the patient understand why the horse is reacting a certain way, and what that says about the patient. Additionally, being outside next to a large animal instead of in an office often leads to more open and honest reflection during the therapy session.
There are several approaches to using horses therapeutically. If you start looking into it, here are some of the terms you might encounter (it seems there is overlap among them):
EAP – Equine-assisted psychotherapy, also known as EFP (Equine-facilitated psychotherapy): This popped up the most in my Google search. It involves a patient, a horse, a certified equine-assisted therapist, and a trained professional therapist. It does NOT necessarily involve learning how to ride horses. The patient may be given a task, such as leading a horse through an obstacle course. The challenges and successes in communicating with the horse to achieve the task are used as jumping-off points for the patient to reflect on himself/herself and interactions with other people.
EAL – Equine-assisted learning, also known as EFL (Equine-facilitated learning): Similar to EAP, but the focus is on goals such as learning about leadership, resilience, etc. Can be used in corporate skill-building sessions, for example.
EAT – Equine-assisted therapy: This seems to be an umbrella term, i.e. “the discipline of using horses in therapy.”
Hippotherapy – Horseback riding used to reach physical, occupational, and speech/language goals
Therapeutic riding – A form of physical therapy for those struggling with physical or biological disorders
Adaptive riding – Gaining horsemanship skills as a means of achieving physical, emotional, and cognitive goals
An overview of these methods, as well as links to professional organizations related to them, is found here at the website for HEAL (Human-Equine Alliances for Learning). EAGALA and PATH are two other professional associations relating to equine therapy.
To read about how equine therapy is used specifically to help people with ADHD, click here and here. It can also be therapeutic for people with Aspergers and others on the spectrum, as discussed here. (On a related note, if your jaw hasn’t dropped lately, check out the documentary titled The Horse Boy!)
Other conditions that are being treated with equine therapy include: behavioral issues, depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, eating disorders, grieving, low self-esteem, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
If you need more convincing about the benefits of human/horse interactions, here is an excerpt from an article by Suzanne Kane on the Elements Behavioral Health website.
Documented research shows positive physical and psychological results from humans interacting with horses. These include, but are not limited to, decreased blood pressure and heart rate, lower levels of stress, reduced feelings of tension, anxiety, anger and hostility, as well as increased levels of beta-endorphins, and beneficial feelings of self-esteem, empowerment, patience and trust.
(Sounds good for just about anybody, right?)
For our atypical teens, these therapies may be available as part of residential treatment programs and therapeutic boarding schools, or may be available within the local community. Many times, equine therapy is one component of a multifaceted treatment program. A quick look at prices for individual sessions in the US showed the general range to be from $30 for a 30-minute session, to $300 for a 90-minute session. In many cases, the cost is subsidized by donations.
Will your health insurance cover equine therapy? That isn’t too common, according to this article. (To me, it seems that if equine therapy is effective enough to prevent more-costly hospitalizations or surgeries, insurance companies might want to reconsider.)
About that effectiveness thing: according to this article in Psych Central, there have only been a few structured studies to assess how well equine therapy works compared to other possible therapies. The results of those studies are mixed, but researchers agree that more studies are needed. However, the anecdotal evidence of improvements in lots and lots of patients is reassuring.
I don’t have any anecdotal evidence, since our family has not experienced equine therapy. However, Nathan did have weekly horseback riding lessons at a local ranch for most of his senior year. (The nearest therapeutic program was too far away for our carsickness-prone son.) Since it was the only activity Nathan had agreed to try in years, we made sure he had the opportunity.
His first instructor was a young man who had worked with autistic kids at another ranch, so Nathan’s aloof behavior didn’t phase him. Each lesson started with saddling the horse, and ended with removing the tack, followed by grooming. That left a little over half an hour of actual riding instruction.
It only took a couple of lessons for the instructor to tell me, “Nathan is a natural. If he wants to, I can take him very far.” Music to my ears! I pictured Nathan expertly riding in equestrian events, gaining self-esteem, making friends, finding a career path related to horses.
Ah, but the kicker was “If he wants to.” The weeks went by, and Nathan advanced a little, but was never eager to try the next skill. He didn’t particularly bond with any of the horses, and being around them didn’t affect his mood.
After a few months, his instructor left to work at another ranch, and the female instructors who replaced him didn’t seem to “get” Nathan as well.
Then came the times Nathan was relieved when lessons were cancelled. Then came the times it was hard to get him to go to a lesson. Then came the arguments.
His main objection was that he didn’t want to go to a lesson if he didn’t feel like going. “That’s the way lessons work” did not prove to be a persuasive counterargument. It was no fun for him, and it was another source of tension for us. And so we called a halt.
Possibly, making the longer drive so Nathan could have real equine therapy may have led to better results. I’ve learned about one facility called The Children’s Ranch in the greater Los Angeles area that is definitely too far away for us – but I wish it weren’t. If you follow the link, prepare to be impressed with the range of programs the Ranch offers beyond therapeutic riding, involving horses and other animals.
Nathan likes animals in general; are there other animal-assisted therapies he could try? My internet search showed these animals are sometimes involved in therapies: dogs (ok), dolphins (!), and elephants (!!!)
If you or a family member has tried equine therapy, please let us know about your experiences. (And if you’ve had elephant-assisted therapy, you automatically qualify for a guest blog post all to yourself!)
UPDATE 10/12/14: A few weeks ago I attended an informational session about a residential program called CIP (College Internship Program). One of the first things mentioned in the presentation was how excited the staff and students were with the results of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which they had started on a trial basis several months earlier. It started out with a few students, but now half of the enrollment at the site is participating in the therapy. “Phenomenal” was how the director described the impact. A staff member I spoke with later told me she personally doesn’t like horses, but she loves the effect the therapy has on her students – they are less agitated and more focused.
I exchanged emails with Alexia Kutzner, the EAGALA-certified therapist who works with the CIP students at Dream Catcher of Los Angeles. Here is an excerpt of what she shared with me:
“I have seen a lot of changes, mainly in self-esteem and sensory integration. We have had a few students with proximity issues that are now able to touch, brush and lead the horse without any problems. Over the course of 12-15 weeks, students also develop a relationship with one or two horses and become more aware of the mood and likes and dislikes of the horses which often corresponds to the individual student. Students have also developed much more overall awareness of themselves and gained greater insight. A lot of this work takes much longer in regular talk therapy.”