While equine therapy has been employed as a more inviting modality for those who are otherwise treatment resistant, can it really be a replacement for traditional talk therapy? Certainly, with substance abuse cases, and with adolescents, practitioners have often relied on the addition of horses to elicit responses that would otherwise not be possible in human encounters. Horses are much less threatening than people, and simply being in their presence can result in a physiological calm, that can then pave the way to effective communication with a therapist. But is equine therapy enough to tackle some of the weighty therapeutic issues people face, or is talking things through with a licensed professional necessary?
One of the most commonly promulgated benefits of equine therapy is that for those who may have trouble being aware of just how they feel, or the even more challenging why, working with horses can help identify these feelings. Yet, for those in the field of equine therapy, the mechanisms behind this process are somewhat up to debate.
People, for centuries, have been drawn to horses. Their power, grace, and mystique has not escaped the attention of thousands who are otherwise unfamiliar, as horse racing, in particular, has consistently drawn national attention. Additionally, the development of our relationship with horses has symbolized many societal changes.
From the beginning, horses were used solely for work related tasks, such as plowing fields, transportation, and military conquests. At this time, little attention was paid to their welfare, and consequently, little more than rudimentary efforts were expected of them. However, as equines immersed into a multitude of cultures, and their unique qualities became more evident, they began to be looked at differently.
With the realization of what more could be accomplished with horses, their societal value rose, as did the concern for their welfare. Soon horse racing evolved and shortly thereafter, a well stocked stable was considered a sign of wealth.
Horses have, for some time now, been showing promise as a complementary modality for humans experiencing psychological distress. As the unconscious guarding that is so typical of human interactions is absent from these horse-human relationships, people often develop an affinity and camaraderie with their equine partners. Especially in the case of trauma, the hallmark neurobiological changes, such as increased excitatory neurochemicals, and exaggerated startle response, tend to obfuscate human social dynamics. As these particular individuals often feel outside of the human experience, and even detached from the self, they typically find a kinship with horses, that extends beyond a cognitive congruence. Physiological changes register a calming response, and mitigation of some of the trauma effects while in the presence of horses.
When equine therapy first became popular as a therapeutic modality, it found it’s way into many addiction treatment centers. At the same point in time, the theory of dual diagnosis — where addicts are understood to have a secondary diagnosis in addition to an addiction — was also gaining ground.
As more and more sufferers of addiction were found to have experienced trauma that might be at the root of their proclivity for addictive substances, the thought was that introducing horses that have also been abused in some way, would help these patients relate to the horses, and consequentially, their own traumas.
While those familiar to horses may contend that equine therapy has been a long time coming, for people who consider spending time with horses a novel experience, it can seem as if horses have exploded onto the therapeutic scene. To be sure, the partnering with horses in the pursuit of wellness has now expanded from treatment centers specializing in eating disorders, to addiction recovery centers, and now even “equestrian life coaching.” Certainly the blossoming of the field has been exciting for horse-people, and offered many therapeutic modalities that were not previously available. On the other hand, clients who may be interested in equine therapy are faced with a multitude of decisions regarding how it is best used, what type of program is most effective, and what to look for in an equine therapy professional.
While those familiar to horses would contend that horses, in general, are good for any type of person, therapists, for whom which equine therapy is a new, untested field, have not been so quick to jump on the bandwagon. Many of the concerns expressed have surrounded the relative lack of evidence available indicating the efficacy of work with horses, but also, lack of clarity as to what particular diagnosis may be helped by equine therapy. Certainly these concerns are not without validity as we have learned that with the fertile emergence of all types of experiential therapies, some approaches are not helpful, and in some ways harmful, for certain types of clients.
While anecdotal reports purporting the benefits of equine-facilitated therapy abound, and a plethora of literature describing the experience of those who love horses can be found at any local bookstore, we still must wonder, is any of this equine fascination supported by research?