Equine sports are a little strange. It’s after all the horse, not the rider, that puts in most of the effort. When it comes to improving someone’s state of mind through exercise, the first thing most people would think of is some activity that involves hitting something or someone with a stick, not cantering around a paddock several feet above the ground.
Horses are intelligent creatures, compassionate in their way and interact well with people if they are trained. They’re large but mostly harmless animals, which translates into interacting with them being a unique experience. A horse requires a great deal of care: feeding, grooming, exercising – and attending to these needs can help someone develop skills such as self-confidence, responsibility, and empathy, all of which translate to a person’s interpersonal conduct. It is also a fun activity in and of itself, very unlike traditional counseling or in-patient care.
Pet therapy using other animals has been successfully instituted in prisons, leading to much improved social behavior and a better degree of rehabilitation. Inmates often suffer from loneliness, boredom and low levels of self-esteem, while also being denied any sense of responsibility. Caring for and connecting with an animal is one way of reversing these feelings and rediscovering social skills.
The Benefits of Horse Therapy
Talking to, caring for and riding a therapy horse is often done under supervision either by a mental health expert, an experienced horse minder or both. In the U.S.A., riding instructors can be certified as equine therapists by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl). The scientific use of “hippo-therapy” (which has nothing to do with a certain large water-dwelling creature) began in 1946 in Scandinavia after two widespread outbreaks of polio.
Horses are generally very patient and accepting, unlike many people we’re forced to interact with in daily life. They are also social animals and will often copy the attitudes and patterns of the people surrounding them, allowing two-way communication that is no less real just because it’s not verbal in nature. They are trusting and undemanding, as well as being able to sense the emotions of those around them, making them the perfect companions for a person who has difficulty in forming bonds with other people.
What Equine Therapy Can Be Used For
One of the reasons for horse-assisted therapy becoming more commonly accepted is the level of success experienced by developmentally challenged individuals who have in several cases gone on to compete in equestrian sports at high levels. This includes people suffering from Autism, Down syndrome and other genetic afflictions, brain injuries or dementia.
In addition, horse therapy has also benefited many people suffering from mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, ADD and the results of bereavement or trauma. While it isn’t always clear how tending to a horse’s needs and riding it is beneficial in any given case, or what part the human facilitator actually plays, remarkable successes have been achieved in:
- Learning self and impulse control, even in cases of addiction
- Improved communication and assertiveness
- Increased self-confidence
- Managing emotions better in social settings and in general.
One of the major applications of horse therapy is treating speech difficulties and other neuromotor diseases. When riding, the animal’s movement compels the rider to adopt a variety of postures and muscular responses. Horse riding is a gentle, low-impact form of exercise that promotes a sense of balance, coordination, flexibility and strengthens the core muscles.
Currently, there is still insufficient research evidence to definitively state that horse therapy is effective for all the problems mentioned particularly as an effective type of psychological treatment. Talk therapy is therefore unlikely to be displaced anytime soon as the primary form of treatment for conditions such as Bipolar disorder and clinical depression. Positive anecdotal evidence abounds, however, with numerous people who overcame traumatic events or behavioral problems with a little equestrian aid. Pursuing this does not feel like therapy but more like relaxation, while the fresh air and exercise it involves have benefits of their own.