Horse Therapy

Camille Cabrolier

Horses are very famous animals. For some, it is because of their beauty, and for others because of their strength. They are known worldwide for horse races and Olympic disciplines, however, they are so much more than that. Horses have been evolving alongside humans for more than 3000 years. They traveled side by side with humans to new countries and new continents, endured wars, participated in sports, and lived through changes in medicine.

Using animal therapy to treat mental health issues has been documented since 1792. One of the most renowned organizations is Assistance Dogs International. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy refers to the use of horses for the treatment of a variety of mental health issues like substance abuse, addiction, behavior disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, learning differences, ADD/ADHD, autism, Asperger’s, grief/loss, trauma, sex addiction, compulsive gambling, bipolar, depression and related conditions.

A person that suffers from a psychological disorder will tend to be emotionally unbalanced, something that horses will feel and react to. The reason behind the effectiveness of equine therapy is that they have the ability to “mirror” human behavior and attitudes. They are also non-judgmental and noble creatures, which allows the patient to create a bond with the horse.

For horse therapy, two people are needed, a psychotherapy expert and a horse expert. The later one is in charge of security and provides all the knowledge required to interact safely with horses. Each session can be alone or in a group, depending on what is being treated, and can last 1 or more hours, contingent on the modality. Therapy consists of many different sessions and they vary according to the weather, physical and emotional state of the patient, and the mood of the horse. Similar to humans, horses also have good and bad days, and this ensures safe and effective sessions.

A typical session would consist of the following: First, the patient would be welcomed by the therapist and then they would greet the horse or locate it in the field. Afterwards, they groom the horse and prepare it with the required equipment. The session can progress with work on foot, mounted, or in freedom. Finally, they put away the equipment, take the horse back to its home and say goodbye. It is very important that during the session the patient verbalizes the emotions he/she is experiencing.

Although equine therapy has proven to be very effective, it is important to make sure there is no contraindication, and it can also be quite expensive. In most countries it is not included in the public health insurance, but can be covered by complementary insurance in some countries. Some clinics may even have grants that can be applied for in case of financial difficulties.

It is also thought that horse therapy can cure and prevent some diseases. A long time ago, during the century of the Lumières, Diderot said in his Encyclopedia that horses can be used to enhance health, cure a big number of sicknesses, and even prevent them from happening. Also in 1952, Lis Hartel, a Danish horse rider, won second place in the Olympic Games at Helsinki while having poliomyelitis, a disease that can cause paralysis. She was paralyzed below the knees and had problems in her arms. She was the first woman to win in an individual sport competing against men.

All horse races may be used for the therapy, and which one to choose will depend on the needs of each patient and what specific objective the therapist has for that session. However, some important points when choosing a horse are that they are obedient, docile and do not get scared easily, so the session can take place without any problems.

Finally, equine therapy has even been shown in many movies and series. Some are geared towards children and some for a more mature audience. One such series that revolves around horse therapy is “Heartland”, which shows how relationships with horses can help to heal both body and soul.


Sources: Association Suisse de Thérapie Avec le Cheval (ASTAC), CRCHealth, Institut de Formation en Equithérapie, Le Mag des Cavaliers Voyageurs, National Geographic, Society and Animals 2007: The Effectiveness of Equine-Assisted Experiential Therapy: Results of an Open Clinical Trial, Very Well Mind