For those unfamiliar with equine therapy, it seems the most common question is whether or not the horse is going to be ridden. Complicating this question is that for most people, the exposure to equine therapy has been that of therapeutic riding programs. Naturally then, when hearing the words “equine therapy,” the assumption is that the horse will be ridden.
In fact, the term equine therapy itself can be a bit misleading, as it is used to describe both therapeutic riding, which of course is done for the physical rehabilitation of those with disabilities, and equine facilitated mental health programs, which are conducted for the psychological rehabilitation of those involved.
Making matters even more complicated, one of the largest governing bodies of equine therapy, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), stemmed from the North American Handicapped Riding Association, (NAHRA), and now offers certifications for both the Therapeutic Riding Instructor (who would do mounted work with children with physical disabilities) and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (who would do unmounted work with those with psychological distress).
So theoretically, we should be able to separate things into two distinct camps — mounted work is done by a therapeutic riding instructor for the physical rehabilitation of a client, and unmounted work is done by an equine specialist in mental health for the psychological rehabilitation of a person — right?
Well, for the the most part, this is true. But what about in the case of a Veteran who has both physical disability as a result of combat, but also now struggles with PTSD?
A client such as this could, and would, probably do mounted work to regain physical strength, but also, as many veterans would attest, the work with horses has vast psychological benefits. One of the most common sentiments Veterans share is that “just being around horses,” makes them feel better.
And for a wheelchair bound person, unmounted work may not necessarily be a safe option, in which case the mounted work would fill both physical and psychological needs.
However, the majority of people who seek out equine therapy for psychological reasons are not physically disabled in any way (that number may change shortly with the dramatic growth of the Heroes For Horses Program), and so would then participate in unmounted work with horses.
On the other hand, there are physical conditions that can be helped by riding a horse (Multiple Sclerosis is one, as Ann Romney would attest), yet do not preclude the person from participating in unmounted work with the horse for psychological reasons.
At this point, separating unmounted from mounted work with horses is best summarized by the following statement:
Mounted work with horses is for physical rehabilitation, while unmounted work is for psychological rehabilitation.
For those of us who love horses (and many Veterans now, too), just being around a horse has tremendous psychotherapeutic value.
Horse and woman photo available from Shutterstock