The use of animals within therapy can be traced back thousands of years. Their ability to read human emotion and their inherent honesty is perhaps why we look to them so often in times of distress. While a range of animals are well known for being therapeutic, horses are becoming particularly well known for their ability to foster change.
Horses have been used in physical therapy since the early 1950s, helping people to refine their motor skills in a gentle way. Since then, the unique bond between human and horse has been incorporated into a type of psychological therapy.
Equine therapy, or hippotherapy (from the Greek word ‘hippos’ which means horse), puts people and horses together along with a therapist in an environment designed to promote emotional growth and learning. Used to help with a variety of mental health issues from addiction to low self-esteem, this therapy type is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. No riding experience is necessary and in most cases you won’t be required to ride the horse at all.
What is equine therapy?
Equine assisted therapy typically involves a horse, a therapist and a horse expert. With Gift Horse, I act as both the horse expert and the therapist and, with my horses, we create the team. This team works with individuals to help them discover more about themselves and develop new ways of thinking. The role of the therapy team is to guide the individual along the way, encouraging them to reflect on their experiences and what it means to them.
After an initial consultation a set of exercises will be carried out according to the needs of the person taking part. Equine assisted therapy can help with many issues and is considered to be especially helpful for those who want to change elements of their behaviour.
What happens in an equine therapy session?
There is normally no horse riding involved and, if you don’t want to, you don’t even have to touch the horse. Various exercises are set up to help you think and act in ways you may not have thought of before. Normally the exercises will require you to interact with the horse; you may be asked to lead the horse over a series of obstacles or to lead it in a certain direction – often without the aid of a lead rope.
This kind of exercise requires a creative way of thinking and may force you to reconsider the way you act. I will always be on hand to ensure everything is safe, however you will not be told how to complete your task – it is up to you to explore different methods.
After you complete the exercises I will talk to you about your experience. Discussing how the exercise made you feel and why you think you were successful or unsuccessful can lead you to learn more about yourself and your behaviour. Over time you may find that you develop a bond with the horse, and this in itself can be incredibly powerful.
History of equine therapy
The concept of using horses within therapy can be traced all the way back to ancient Greek times, where writings by Hippocrates described ‘hippotherapy’ (horse therapy). The technique became popular in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in the 1950s when the therapy was used alongside physiotherapy for those with physical disabilities. In this type of therapy, the movements of the horse were used to influence neuromuscular changes in the patient.
In the last 20 years equine therapy has evolved to include psychological therapy. Today more and more people are discovering how empathetic animals can be in the recovery process and equine assisted therapy continues to grow in popularity.
When people first hear about equine therapy, the first question is usually – why horses? Other animals (such as dogs) are commonly used in animal assisted therapy, however horses are considered to provide more scope for behavioural change. There are a number of reasons for this, including the following:
- Because of their size
As horses are large and powerful animals, they can be intimidating. For some people, this presents them with a challenge as soon as they start therapy – to overcome this fear. Combating this initial issue can be incredibly liberating and helps to boost feelings of confidence and self-esteem. Accomplishing tasks and gaining the trust of such animals only continues to reinforce these feelings of empowerment.
- Because they are herd animals
Horses are herd animals, which means they naturally desire company and often want to be led. This makes them very social animals that want to create bonds – and this can be especially poignant when it comes to humans. Horses are therefore ideal for this type of therapy, as they will be inclined to develop a relationship with you when you are ready.
- Because they mirror behaviour
Another reason horses are used is because they have an innate ability to mirror the thoughts and behaviours of others. Because they are prey animals, they can read body language and respond instantly. This means that if you enter the horse’s space with a negative attitude and defensive body language, chances are the horse won’t want to interact with you. Alternatively, if you enter with a sense of calm, confidence and openness – you should find the horse responds more positively. It is this trait that helps you to reflect on your behaviour and challenge the way you approach situations both inside and outside of your therapy session.
- Because they have their own personality
Horses can be incredibly human in their personalities – they can be stubborn and seemingly defiant at times. They also like to have fun and often turn exercises into games. Horses can be incredibly caring too, and if you are upset they often respond in a nurturing manner. These personality traits once again make horses a natural companion during the therapeutic process, providing vast opportunity for growth.