Is Equine Therapy supported by research?
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?
In a recent literary review, little to no studies were found that directly measured the impact of working with horses on the amelioration of any psychological conditions. There are, however, several studies linking the psychotherapeutic benefits of targeted work with animals. An interesting one, published in 1980, (Barker and Dawson, 1998) followed 92 cardiac patients to find that those who owned pets lived longer. A second Australian study, by the same researchers, then clarified this finding by uncovering that pet owners had, “lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels than did non-pet owners.”
And the benefits of animals offer people are not just physical. Animals have been found to have a “de-arousing effect” on humans while additionally offering social support. For this reason, dogs have now been successfully incorporated into rehabilitations settings including jails, recovery centers, and medical centers.
However, despite the absence of research concerning equine therapy in peer-reviewed journals, there are a few pilot studies that have shown promising results. One such study, conducted by Leigh Shambo, MSW, LMHC, on adult women outpatients with complex PTSD found significant changes in depression, anxiety, and dissociative scores, as well as outcome questionnaires. This research is especially promising given that all participants met the criteria for PTSD or Borderline PD, and were currently symptomatic despite medication and outpatient counseling.
Additionally the social and occupational functioning of these women was impaired due to symptomology at the time of the study, as they had either refused or failed to benefit from traditional group therapy. While both talk therapy and medication hadn’t shown any benefit for these study participants, the positive effects of equine therapy remained, and even improved at a 4 month followup.
Shambo’s work is innovative not just in the results demonstrated, but also in light of the fact that previous research on equine therapy has centered around the use of horses for autism spectrum disorders, and physical disabilities. Further, these programs typically include riding as a way of re-establishing the correct movement patterns to initiate walking. While this research has proven quite useful, it’s effects have not been able to be generalized past these specific conditions.
So while it may premature to extrapolate any strong conclusions from Shambo’s single study, it is definitely quite promising. While for those of us who work in the field, the results are not surprising, more research is indicated to prove the efficacy of equine therapy for conditions such as complex PTSD. However, we can conclude that work with animals or horses, is certainly not harmful for these conditions, and frequently quite enjoyable for patients therefore may be included in a treatment plan for this reason alone.
“Therapeutic Horseback Riding As Autism Treatment”. Regarding Horses. 11 March 2008. http://www.regardinghorses.com/2008/03/11/therapeutic-horseback-riding-as-autism-treatment/. Retrieved 16 December 2009.
“How Does Therapeutic Horseback Riding Help Autism? Therapeutic horseback riding (THR) is simply horseback riding lessons for individuals with disabilities.”. Autism in the Christian Home. http://www.autism-in-the-christian-home.com/therapeutic-horseback-riding.html. Retrieved 16 December 2009.