Choosing a therapy is a challenge for most people as you don’t know in advance what kind of therapy is going to suit you. Some people react better to talking therapy while others prefer the experiential approach. It depends entirely on the person.
You are probably wondering how is it possible for horses (or any animals) to help you. The answer lies in how they behave in the wild.
In fact therapy involving horses – Equine Assisted Therapy – has a long history, having been applied to physical and mental health since the 1960’s. Indeed, the USA was one of the first to recognize that equine mental health treatment could be used to tackle trauma and PTSD, establishing the Sierra Tuscon Centre in 1983.
Equine Assisted Therapy stems from the fact that horses are pack animals that live together in a herd. They have survived by developing a sophisticated method of communication, which has evolved over thousands of years. When a predator approaches, the herd has to decide to ‘fight or flight’. Since any sound would alert a predator, horses cannot rely on vocalisation. Instead they use a silent method to communicate which is very subtle, ranging from a flickering ear, a different stance or subtle body movement. Consequently not only are horses alert to the most subtle changes in each other’s behaviour, but they can process its meaning and react swiftly. Furthermore, horses have the ability to detect tiny energy vibrations through their body movements. This combined with their billions of mirror neurons, used for empathy, makes them ideal animals to interact with humans.
Is there evidence how horses can help humans?
Ellen S. Kay Gehrke Ph.D conducted scientific studies with the HeartMath Institute, measuring the Heart Rate Variable (HRV) that provides a clue to explain the two way ‘healing’ that happens when humans interact with horses. Using a magnetometer she determined that the electromagnetic energy field of the human heart, extends up to 8 to 10 feet around the human body. A horse’s heart is 5 times bigger than a human’s and has a correspondingly larger electromagnetic field. When the horse and human ‘energy fields’ interact they appear to effect each other’s heart rate. Since horses have a very stable heart rhythm, humans frequently feel calmer when they are around these animals.
‘What we have seen proves that when a human is in a positive emotional state the horse’s state becomes one of positive emotion.’Kip Mistral and Ellen S.Kaye Gehrke
Indeed, research shows that people experience many other physiological benefits whilst interacting with horses including lower blood pressure, increased levels of beta-endorphins (neurotransmitters that serve as pain suppressors) decreased stress levels, reduced feeling of anger, hostility, tension, depression and anxiety, improved social functioning and increased feeling of empowerment, trust, patience and self-efficacy.
How does this work?
Equine Assisted Therapy is not a ‘talking therapy’. Rather it focuses on the limbic area of your brain, the part dedicated to emotion and empathy. As humans we engage this area when we feel empathy or emotional resonance with each other. For example when we ‘feel’ a friend’s pain. In fact we are also able to experience the same emotional resonance when we work with horses. However because horses have a smaller “thinking” or neo-cortex part of the brain than humans and are more in tune with their emotional brain, we are able to use this emotional resonance to access, reflect and process our own emotions. This helps us recover self-awareness and insight into our own emotional expressions, such as anger, fear, sadness, grief or joy.
It is often difficult to access these emotional problems, or explain them verbally. But once we lose the ability to express our ‘true self’ or to connect to our real emotional state, life can feel rigid or stuck. Whilst, blocked emotions will often present themselves as anxiety, depression, lack of energy or panic attacks. However, by ‘experiencing’ the emotions through a physical connection with the horse we can reconnect with the causes, process these problems and find new creative solutions to them.
How can this help me?
Each client sets his or her overall goal for the therapy and results are based on their own personal journey.
An equine therapist observes how a client interacts with a horse and guides them on how each interaction reflects the issues they face in their own lives. Horses by nature seek harmony with humans and become uncomfortable when they sense emotions that are being suppressed or masked. Which is why equine therapy gives the client an opportunity to investigate how their issues are manifesting in their physical body. By examining these sensations, clients are able to pinpoint an emotional issue that can be hard to identify or resolve through conventional talking therapies.
Example: Working with a client with social anxiety and difficulties relating to friends and family
- We went to work with the horses after discovering that she felt an uncomfortable emotion in her chest. The client chose to stand away from the herd but she could still see them. One of the horses approached her and all the other horses followed until they were almost surrounding her. The client then burst into tears saying that she never felt included fully included in a group. She always felt like an outsider and for the first time she had experienced what it is like to be within a group without being judged or having to defend herself and feeling accepted. With the help of the facilitator she started to relate this to her relationships with family, children, work and groups she had previously wanted to join but felt she could not.
- Having had that experience of being felt and heard for the first time was very emotional for her and the uncomfortable feeling in her chest had disappeared. Her anxieties were significantly reduced and we were than able to work and establishing a plan how to regulate herself when she felt anxious because she had this positive experience within her body, acknowledging emotions which were stuck preventing her from moving forward, reconnecting with parts of her body which were suppressed. She started to feel safe, empowered and more able to move forward, including practising mindfulness and breathing and staying in the present.
From these initial interactions with the horses, we started a journey of re-growth that allowed her to become comfortable with these revelations and develop a more constructive way to live her life and react to her problems in the future.
Are there different types of Equine Therapy?
Focusing on mental health, including anxiety, depression, feeling lost, constantly fatigued, trauma, low self-esteem and confidence or issues with divorce to name a few.
Focusing on mental health, the same as equine therapy with more emphasis on trauma, PTSD and complex PTSD.
This can include cognitive treatments like CBT or trauma focused CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) or EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing)
Equine Coaching /Self Development or Equine Assisted Learning
Focused on helping people change something in their lives which is holding them back. It does not go into as much depth as Equine Therapy. An approach you might choose to seek out the help from therapist vs self-development.
Equine Leadership Coaching/Professional Development
Companies and professional bodies seek out this training for their managers or employees to improve leadership skills. It focusses on non-verbal communication, trust, authenticity and respect. It also explores how they are seen by others and how they see themselves, in order to improve and strengthen team spirit and productivity.
Therapeutic Horseback Riding/Riding for the Disabled
Focused on riding horses to help individuals with special needs to improve their physical, cognitive and social well-being. Clients also learn about the horse, gaining health benefits from this physical activity.
This is a form of therapy where a client rides a horse to improve coordination, core strength, enhancing their balance, whilst engaging the brain to co-ordinate body and mind. The Hippotherapy Association defines this as a physical, occupational, or speech and language therapy treatment that utilizes equine movement. It might help people suffering from Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Stroke, Traumatic Brain Injury, Autism and Learning and Language Disabilities.
I hope this article gives you an insight in how Equine Therapy works and will make you more empowered to choose the right therapy.