What is Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy?
Equine-Assisted (or Facilitated) Psychotherapy is an experiential therapy that utilizes horses, which includes activities such as handling, grooming, riding, and other tasks involved in caring for horses. This type of therapy is designed to address particular issues, including:
- anger management
- anxiety disorders
- poor concentration
- social communication
- social interaction
- emotional expression
- boundaries and limitations
- group cohesion and dynamics
Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy has been found to be particularly effective with children, pre-teens and teenagers. It’s also especially effective with children who have witnessed family violence and have responded with depression, suicidal feelings, anxiety, anger, withdrawal, and escape mechanisms such as drugs and alcohol use.
This type of therapy is not limited to riding horses as is traditional therapeutic riding for the disabled. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy uses the different tasks of caring for the horse and the bonds that are formed through that process to establish trust, respect, and responsibility. The rural type of environment where the therapy takes place often has a calming effect on patients so that anxiety abates and the ability to think clearly increases. This therapy has improved confidence and self-esteem because once a patient has earned the horse’s trust, the horse will become unconditionally attached and loyal. Without the fear of being judged, or having to meet unreasonable expectations, biases, or motivations, a child can relax and begin to express his or her true feelings. This process leads a child towards a greater sense of self-identity, which goes a long way to fostering an innate self-confidence and functionality in other social situations.
When a group of patients work together who have emotional or behavioral issues, they learn ways to communicate with each other and with the horses, which promotes self-esteem, body-confidence, and physical awareness. Patients with extreme anxiety will learn effective relaxation techniques, and patients dealing with abusive relationships will learn how to be both assertive and trusting as they work with an animal much stronger and larger than they. Children with out-of-control behavior problems will learn how to solve problems and control frustration by leading and directing the horse in activities that begin with the patient on the ground. These children will also gain significant self-confidence by achieving their goals.
A horse responds to a person’s actions and emotional state, so a patient must become self-aware to effectively work with and ride on the horse. In order to ride and care for a horse, good communication skills with the instructor and the horse are necessary. Anger issues must also be confronted because manifestations of anger will result in a horse that refuses to be ridden. A person will have to develop other methods of dealing with aggression and anger to obtain the horse’s cooperation and trust. A patient who is fearful or especially anxious will also have difficulty getting a horse to cooperate, but the process of grooming, feeding, saddling, etc. are usually effective in helping a child achieve a calmer, more confident state of mind.
The increase in confidence and self-esteem that is achieved through Equine-Assisted Therapy will also increase a desire to interact socially, while the skills used to effectively work with a horse are transferred to other areas of the child’s life. Riding a horse aids the patient in dealing with others because it helps teach how to form meaningful bonds and relationships. Forming a bond with a horse can be very rewarding and empowering for a child; the trust that both horse and rider must have for each other and the loyalty the horse responds with teaches what qualities are best in any type of relationship. The fact that patients can see a direct connection between action and reaction also helps foster trust and gives the patients a greater feeling of control in this and other situations.
The experience of riding a horse is unique and empowering. To be able to sit so high up on a such as powerful animal and control what happens instills great confidence, while the learning process increases the ability of an individual to connect on a personal level with both horse and instructor. Additionally, horses (and all animals, including humans) can be unpredictable when they are under stress or scared or spooked by something a person cannot even see, and this creates situations where a patient must learn how to respond, how to confront their fears, and how to make adjustments in their own behavior to handle sudden changes.
Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy is a form of therapy that patients tend to associate with having fun, and they usually look forward to these sessions. The therapy is removed from many of the negative ideas and emotions which surround the therapy process and the therapist, so it becomes easier for the therapist to gain the patient’s trust and respect, which makes the therapy much more effective much quicker.
Animal Assisted Therapy for Troubled Teens
Anyone who has had a teen knows that sometimes it’s difficult to carry on a two-way conversation with one. Even the most well adjusted teen will often answer questions with monosyllables, avoiding meaningful conversations about feelings and issues-at least with adults-like the plague.
This behavior is believed to be because teens haven’t yet learned to express complex and confusing thoughts and feelings in a clear way. And many of their issues have to do with real or perceived conflicts with family members, especially parents, making it all the more difficult to express themselves without becoming overly emotional.
For troubled teens, this difficulty with communication is intensified. This is one reason that traditional “talk therapy” with a troubled teen isn’t always effective, particularly if the teen doesn’t care to talk.
Animal assisted therapy is a form of therapeutic intervention in which animals are used to assist the therapist. Animal assisted therapy recognizes the bond that quickly develops between human and animal, and the potential for client interaction with an animal to help with emotional healing and growth.
Not only can the therapist get important clues about a teen’s interaction patterns with family members and friends by observing interaction with the animal, but this observation can also be used to help the teen to understand her own behavior and to practice healthier behaviors in a safe setting.
When attention is focused upon a challenging task, such as haltering a horse or grooming a dog, the sense of purpose in the activity offers great opportunity to develop and practice skills such as self-control, decision-making, and communication. It is also an opportunity to build self-confidence and trust.
The important aspect that differentiates experiential therapy from simply an experience is that there are clearly defined goals for the teen, developed by and supported by a licensed mental health professional, with opportunity for the teen to reflect upon how the activity impacts him, as well as therapist encouragement for transferring newly learned behaviors to the real life setting.