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How can Equestrian Therapy Help?

Equine-assisted therapy - better known simply as equestrian therapy - uses horses for the emotional benefit of patients who have various medical conditions.

It is particularly useful for people with attention deficit disorder, autism, anxiety, Down’s syndrome, dementia, delay in mental development, depression, various genetic syndromes, trauma, addiction, anger, brain injuries, behavioural and abuse issues and other mental health problems.


Why horses?

Many species of animal are used for therapy including dogs, cats and dolphins - but horses are a popular choice, thanks to their ability to respond immediately to the rider's action, giving feedback by the way they react. They are also an empathic animal and can mirror the rider's emotions. Their personality can seem very human - they can be incredibly caring and will nurture you if you're upset. They can also be stubborn and defiant - again, mirroring human traits.

Horses are large and powerful and this presents some patients with an immediate challenge as they must overcome their fear. This can feel liberating, helping to boost self-esteem and confidence. Gaining the horse's trust and accomplishing tasks reinforces the feelings of empowerment.

As they are herd animals, horses desire company and often enjoy being led - they are social animals and enjoy creating bonds. This can help humans to do the same, as the horse will develop a relationship with them.


How does equestrian therapy work?

Horses have similar social and responsive behaviour to humans, so it's easy to establish a connection with them. Riding isn't mandatory if the patient doesn't want to do this but exercises are devised to make the person think in ways they may not have considered before. Developing a creative way of thinking and making patients consider the way they behave, these exercises require interaction with the horse, such as leading it - often without a rope and just by using voice and actions.

Apart from riding, patients can take lessons in caring for horses in the stables, saddling, grooming and basic equestrian skills.

The patient won't be told how to complete their task and must explore different methods to help them learn more about themselves. Over time, they will develop a bond with the horse and this in itself is a powerful emotion.


Therapeutic benefits

Equestrian therapy is administered in such a way that the patients don't feel like they're in therapy. The aim is to build confidence and the sense of self-worth; improve communication; develop socialising skills to reduce feelings of isolation; build trust; learn limits and boundaries; learn to control impulses and manage emotions.

For people on the autistic spectrum, equestrian therapy requires little verbal communication and focuses on behaviour, so it can be both fun and beneficial. People who have behavioural problems and lack social skills find group therapy useful, working with other people to accomplish set tasks with the horses.

Thanks to the horse's gentle nature, trauma victims can be helped to rebuild their trust and confidence, while people dealing with anger issues must learn to act in a different way to achieve the desired response, as horses don't react well to anger.

People who have anxiety can overcome these feelings as they start accomplishing tasks with the animal. Over time, the patients can learn new skills such as problem-solving and creative thinking, while building their confidence.

In all equestrian activities safety is a primary concern, for people and animals. The therapists ensure the patients are wearing helmets and protective clothing and that activities take place in a safe environment throughout the session.



In Ancient Greek literature, writings by physician Hippocrates who was born in around 460BC, described "horse therapy", while in 600 BC, Orbasis of Lydia documented the therapeutic benefits of riding. The first official study of riding as therapy was completed by French physician, Cassaign in 1875. He recommended using riding as therapy for conditions including neurological disorders; to improve posture, joint movement and balance and for psychological improvement. The therapy became increasingly popular in Austria, Germany and Switzerland in the 1950s, when patients with a physical disability enjoyed riding to influence neuromuscular changes.

In the past 20 years, equestrian therapy has evolved to include psychological as well as physical therapy and more therapists are realising how useful horses can be in the recovery process.

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