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Spending time with horses is therapeutic; it forces me to focus on the present instead of dwelling in the past or thinking about future possibilities. So when my friend told me about equine therapy programs for people suffering from mental or physical ailments, it piqued my interest immediately.
Equine therapy highlights the positive aspects of horse ownership and works those attributes into treatment plans for people with physical, mental, or emotional problems. The key benefits are increased muscle strength, improved balance, reduced stress levels, and accepting responsibility.
Working with horses can be a life-changing experience. It is not just about the physical benefits of riding horses but also about learning to take care of them, which has mental and emotional health benefits as well.
For example, equine therapy has been used successfully to help teenagers stressed out at home, prison inmates, and those who suffer from drug addiction or anxiety issues get back on their feet again. It’s also proven to be a powerful tool for treating the problems associated with PTSD, paralysis, and autism.
What is Equine Therapy? (The Long Answer)
Horses and humans have had a relationship for thousands of years. No other animal has contributed so much to human survival in terms of food, transportation, an instrument of war, and a tool for physical labor as much as the horse.
Horses fascinate us, and this fascination is not limited to riding alone. Millions of people – both riders and non-riders – have discovered horses’ physical and mental healing abilities, i.e., the foundation of equine therapy.
Here are some reasons why horses can heal and why equine therapy works:
#1. Being with horses changes people
When you work with a horse, you discover and know yourself better and change how you see your environment. You simply become more compassionate and loving than you’d imagine.
Horses remind us that although humans look, dress, or talk differently, inherently, we are all the same. They instantly remind us that we share this planet and have the same fears, dreams, and desires. More than anything else, we all have that inherent need to love and be loved.
#2. Being with horses can be physically and mentally therapeutic
I am not just stating this without any scientific basis. You’ll know what I mean if you look at the success stories from Horses for Heroes.
Injured war veterans and soldiers, some missing limbs, paralyzed, and suffering from PTSD symptoms, started Horses for Heroes. Initially, the program was meant as a physical rehabilitation therapy for soldiers with missing limbs.
Therapists soon discovered that the horses healed traumatized veterans without even meaning to. In fact, this therapy helped where traditional talk and medicines failed- it seemed as if their interaction with animals led many of these wounded warriors to success in ways other modes couldn’t achieve.
#3. Horses help us discover our best selves
Equine therapy can help people discover themselves. It can encourage people to become better people, parents, partners, and friends. A horse teaches you that you’re responsible for everything that happens to you, and maybe when you do not get something, you need to change.
Horses are ego-less beings, and that makes them the best teachers. A horse will never lie, and it won’t ever go wrong. It is this incredible strength and power of a horse that forms the foundation of equine therapy.
What is the Purpose of Equine Therapy?
According to the experts at New Heights Therapy – Adaptive Riding, equine therapy can help with the following aspects:
- Improves mood
- Encourages self-discipline
- Improves self-esteem
- Increases patience
- Heals trauma
- Improves focus and concentration.
- Enhances memory
- Increases cognition
- Improves communication skills.
Adaptive or therapeutic riding also helps you physically in the following ways:
- Strengthens muscles
- Increases stamina and endurance
- Improves fine motor skills
- Enhances posture, balance, and stability
- Encourages social interactions.
How Does Equine Therapy Work?
Hippocrates believed that horseback riding had a healing effect as it utilized the universal language of rhythm. It is no wonder that physicians prescribed horseriding to patients with mental, physical, and emotional problems in ancient times.
Today, Equine-assisted therapy has made great strides, and you have different types of it. These mainly include physical therapy, psychological counseling, etc. A licensed therapist facilitates these services.
The basic premise of equine therapy is that the therapist uses horses and their movements as tools to progress healing in addition to traditional treatment.
A trained equine therapy horse “works on the client” through gentle, rhythmic movements, body language, and soft grunts and neighs. The horse and therapists teach clients to breathe in and out with the horse rhythmically.
As we all know, deep rhythmic breathing has a host of mental, physical, and spiritual benefits. Of course, this only forms a minor premise of equine therapy.
In addition to riding, equine therapy also entails interaction with the horses. Clients participate in grooming, feeding the horse, cleaning the barn, walking with the horse, etc. These activities can be soothing.
In addition to the horse’s non-judgmental nature and gentle movements, disabled or distressed individuals learn to enjoy nature. The open barn or field where the therapy usually takes place has plenty of fresh air, which can play an enormous role in their healing.
For patients with physical disabilities such as war wounds or kids with cerebral palsy, riding a horse can help strengthen and stabilize the spine, improve posture and balance, and enhance their movements. Even the simple act of brushing a horse or doing up its buckles on its stable sheet or blanket can help with fine motor skills.
Types of Equine Therapy
Equine therapy is of 4 different kinds:
Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP)
In EFP, the horse acts as a biofeedback mechanism. Biofeedback is an essential step in psychotherapy that helps individuals recognize signs of stress, anxiety, and depression. A horse will breathe, snort, grunt, or make head movements when it realizes an individual has an increased heart rate or body temperature.
The individual then learns to alter these patterns as they form a deep loving bond of trust and respect with the horse. EFP is useful in treating anxiety, depression, ADHD, and several physical disorders.
Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL)
An equine-assisted therapist uses a trained horse as a tool to communicate non-verbally with the client. This is done to facilitate learning in distressed individuals who do not respond well to traditional learning methods.
The therapist simply acts as a translator between the horse and the client. This equine therapy is beneficial for people with learning disabilities and behavioral issues.
Hippotherapy is a medically prescribed therapy for neurological rehabilitation. A physiotherapist with specialized training can carry it out. They use a horse’s walk or trot as a therapeutic medium to help the client.
Hippotherapy aims to improve circulation and selective movements between parts of the body while helping with balance, posture, and mobility. Hippotherapy may help treat conditions like cerebral palsy, head injuries, strokes, autism, spinal cord injury, etc.
Below is a YouTube video that explains how horse riding therapy helps children with Autism.
Therapeutic or Adaptive Riding
Adaptive riding is another field that incorporates therapy horses for healing. The premise behind this form of equine therapy is that the act of riding a horse is good for the individual’s mental and physical well-being. It encompasses not only horse riding but also horse grooming.
The difference between adaptive riding and other equine-assisted therapies above is that it does not have to be supervised or directed by mental health or other licensed professionals. There may not be any goals in it.
Also, there is no in-depth analysis of this therapy. Adaptive learning is known to help individuals with learning disabilities, multiple sclerosis, PTSD, paralysis, severe spinal injuries, visually or hearing impaired individuals, Down Syndrome, scoliosis, etc.
For more information on Adaptive Riding, click here.
How Do I Become a Certified Equine Therapist?
If you love horses and helping humans, you can have a rewarding career in equine-assisted therapy. Individuals need to complete PATH certification to become certified equine assistant therapists. PATH stands for Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
It is a non-profit organization with more than 8000 members across the globe. Alternatively, you can opt for certification through the Certification Board for Equine Interaction Professionals.
There are three levels of PATH certification: Registered, Advanced, and Master. They all have different coursework, prerequisites, and fees.
To become a Registered equine therapist, you must appear for a 2-day, in-person examination. The examiner will assess your horsemanship as well as teaching skills. You can study independently or take the PATH course, which costs nearly $4000.
Pre-requisites for Registered therapist
- To sign up for PATH membership, you need to be at least 18 years old.
- A CPR first-aid certification is a must-have
- You must complete an online self-assessment exam, a standard course and exam, and a minimum of 25 hours of teaching therapeutic riding to at least two people.
- Finally, attend the onsite PATH instructor workshop and take the certification exam.
Once you receive your basic Registered certified equine therapy degree, you can study further for the Advanced certification. Expect to spend almost $2000, including traveling to the exam center and other certification costs.
Prerequisites for Advanced therapy certification
- Age at least 21 years
- Registered PATH member
- Complete child and adult CPR and first aid certifications, PATH-approved certification and course materials, and onsite workshops. You also need to complete 120 hours of instructing.
Advanced therapists can also appear for Master’s certification. However, not many choose to reach the Master’s certification level.
Equine therapy has been around for hundreds of years, and horses have been known to heal physical, emotional, and mental issues.
If you plan to become an equine therapist, you are on the path to a rewarding career that entails working with horses and helping troubled, sick, and disabled individuals.
There are different forms of Equine Assisted therapy, including hippotherapy, equine-facilitated learning, etc. They all require specific certifications and are beneficial for various health issues.
You can start with PATH CTRI (certified therapeutic riding instructor) and move ahead from there. We hope this brief guide helps you get started.
How long does it take to become a certified equine therapist?
Most certification programs take ten months of theory and practical sessions. This includes projects, online coursework, residential workshops, etc.
How much does equine-assisted therapy cost?
The national median cost of equine-assisted therapy is around $200 (plus taxes) for a one-on-one session. Some programs may be covered by insurance, so check with your provider.
I love animals! Especially horses, I’ve been around them most of my life but I am always learning more and enjoy sharing with others. I have bought, sold, and broke racehorse yearlings. I have raised some winning horses and had some that didn’t make it as racehorses, so we trained them in other disciplines.