Equine therapy might be what sounds like a fancy way of saying, “Giddy-up and get better!” but there’s so much more at play.
It can take on many forms, but the ultimate goals are to help heal humans’ minds, bodies, or spirits. And sometimes, all three at once.
In terms of treating substance use disorders and mental health problems, it tends to fall under the umbrella of equine-assisted psychotherapy. That involves working with horses to address some key issues that come up when treating mental disorders (addiction included), like building trust and processing emotions.
What Is Equine Therapy?
Equine therapy can take on many forms. It can be hard work (physical and psychological), but because it takes focus and animals provide a natural distraction, the underlying therapeutic goals – whether they be improved coordination or a willingness to open up about trauma – tend to be subtle but powerful.
Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) is what is offered to the patients at Mountain Springs Recovery. Once or twice a week, patients travel to nearby Gypsy Wind Ranch for horse therapy.
There, horses are used to help treat psychological issues. The goal is to interact with the animals to bring forth those breakthrough moments.
How Does Mountain Recovery Springs Provide Equine Therapy?
Mountain Springs Recovery offers equine therapy to our patients. We partner with nearby Gypsy Wind Ranch (which also happens to be in Monument, CO), who provide the horses in question.
Once or twice a week, we will take our patients to nearby Gypsy Wind Ranch, about 15 minutes from our facility.
There, clients will spend time with the ranch’s four therapy horses. Our staff will observe and work with patients as they need, but we often just stand back and let patients interact with horses (with oversight from Gypsy Wind’s experts).
Jessica Lee is one of the owners of Gypsy Wind, and she facilitates equine therapy when Mountain Springs patients visit the ranch. Lee is a Marriage and Family Therapist Candidate, MFTC, in addition to being a registered psychotherapist as well as a barn manager at the ranch. She’s worked with individuals – children, teens, and adults – as well as families and couples. The experiential treatment that makes up equine therapy serves as a complement to traditional psychotherapy.
Patients spend about 90 minutes interacting with the ranch’s horses, petting them, leading them around the grounds, or sometimes simply just watching the horses from a distance.
The horses have their own issues – one, for example, was abused – so they can take time to build trust with people. Some patients may understand and connect with that since that may be their situation, too. The result is that both horse and patient help one another heal.
No one is forced to interact with the horses. Some people are eager, while others might feel a bit shy because of the horses’ size. (All the horses are experienced and certified to work with patients.) Gypsy Wind Ranch has four horses – Shiloh, Ele, Scarlett, and Cinnamon – who participate in equine therapy. It takes many years to train the horses to work with humans in a therapeutic capacity. All of Gypsy Wind’s horses are ages 15 and up, so they’re used to two-legged company. Age: 22 Breed: Tennessee Walker Mare Ele has experienced a lot of obstacles in her life, including major injuries and loss of both human and herd trust. Through her own healing, she’s regained that trust. Ele’s the kind of horse a toddler can stand under without worry. According to Gypsy Ranch, if Ele had a motto it’d be “What’s the whole riding thing about? I just want to stand here and be loved.” Age: 15 Breed: American Quarter Horse Association Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse Mare Scarlett is Gypsy Wind’s only “rescue” horse and lives up to her feisty name. In her early years, she suffered abuse because of her spirited and energetic nature. She’s made tremendous strides, thanks to being in a safe and healing environment. Age 16: Breed: Paint Gelding Shiloh is is a gentle soul who’s never had a hand raised toward him in anger. He’s sociable, curious, and loves hanging around people (including young children) and other animals. Age: 16 Breed: Grade Quarter Horse Mare Cinnamon is a sensitive horse that took a little while to learn to trust humans. She’s made a lot of progress, and today she loves to be touched and petted.
Meet the Horses
Elegy-Grey aka “Ele”
Yolanda-Lena aka “Cinnamon”
Gypsy Wind Ranch has four horses – Shiloh, Ele, Scarlett, and Cinnamon – who participate in equine therapy.
It takes many years to train the horses to work with humans in a therapeutic capacity. All of Gypsy Wind’s horses are ages 15 and up, so they’re used to two-legged company.
Breed: Tennessee Walker Mare
Ele has experienced a lot of obstacles in her life, including major injuries and loss of both human and herd trust. Through her own healing, she’s regained that trust. Ele’s the kind of horse a toddler can stand under without worry. According to Gypsy Ranch, if Ele had a motto it’d be “What’s the whole riding thing about? I just want to stand here and be loved.”
Breed: American Quarter Horse Association Thoroughbred/Quarter Horse Mare
Scarlett is Gypsy Wind’s only “rescue” horse and lives up to her feisty name. In her early years, she suffered abuse because of her spirited and energetic nature. She’s made tremendous strides, thanks to being in a safe and healing environment.
Breed: Paint Gelding
Shiloh is is a gentle soul who’s never had a hand raised toward him in anger. He’s sociable, curious, and loves hanging around people (including young children) and other animals.
Breed: Grade Quarter Horse Mare
Cinnamon is a sensitive horse that took a little while to learn to trust humans. She’s made a lot of progress, and today she loves to be touched and petted.
Who Benefits From Equine Therapy?
Both patient and horse benefit from equine therapy. The horses are trained to be gentle and work with clients.
Modern equine therapy is a newer practice and gaining in popularity. Studies have found they team effectively with humans for many reasons, including:
- Their ability to reflect human emotion
- Because they are prey animals they remain present, or in the moment, (for their survival) and can pick up environmental cues.
- They’re social herd animals and communicate well as a result
- They rely on non-verbal communication and will pick up on whether a person displays unclear verbal and non-verbal cues
When clients work with the horse the horse picks up on whether they’re hesitant or in command and reacts accordingly. The patient must communicate effectively and honestly for the horse to cooperate. It might be safe to say the horse acts as an emotional lie detector of sorts.
Another benefit of equine therapy is that it takes place in a non-clinical setting. Instead of being seated in a sofa across from your therapist, you’re headed to a ranch tucked among rolling fields and surrounded by mountains. You’ll step out of the bus or van, feel the sun and breeze on your face, and maybe spy a horse or two walking about. You’ll enter the big barn and be surrounded by soothing music and the whinnying of the horses. It’s an experience that engages the senses and locks you into the here and now.
The healing power of nature, which has been well-documented, grows apparent.
This experiential approach to therapy can benefit people who feel profoundly touched by animals or moved by nature. It can also benefit people who might prefer getting outside of a therapist’s office or a classroom for a while. That’s not always the best way to reach everyone, so this different way of processing and being in the moment can be truly transformative.
The Role of Our Staff during Equine Therapy
When clients go for equine therapy, Mountain Springs’s therapists go along. Rehab patients work more with the counselors of Gypsy Wind Ranch at these sessions, but our therapists remain nearby to observe and offer support as needed.
Equine therapy for mental health doesn’t serve as a replacement for addiction rehab or for working through issues like trauma, but it can serve as an effective complement.
Gypsy Wind’s Jessica Lee has a curriculum with topics, goals, and worksheets unique to each session. The goal here is not to frighten or force patients into equine therapy but to open them up to new experiences, new ways of feeling, and experiencing the world. That can help make it easier to accept and move toward lasting, positive change.
How does equine therapy work?
Most EAT programs involve groundwork with horses – feeding, grooming, or ground exercises. Riding or vaulting aren’t commonly utilized. (That tends to happen more with various forms of physical therapies.) Mental health professionals help patients gain self-awareness, open up about feelings, and address behaviors. It can help in social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral ways.
Other ways of using horses for therapy include:
- Hippotherapy. Typically done by licensed physical, occupational, and speech therapists to help improve a patient’s motor functions, muscle tone, and speech. It can help people with brain injuries, cerebral palsy, sensory processing disorders, and more.
- Equine-assisted learning. Clients work with horses to raise self-awareness, understand behavioral patterns, and develop new ways of thinking. The focus tends to be in education, professional development, and personal development. This can help with self-confidence and non-verbal communication.
(There are other equine therapies, too, including interactive vaulting, therapeutic carriage driving, and equine-assisted activities.)
How Is Equine Therapy Helpful?
Equine therapy can help in many ways, depending on what needs treating. For equine-assisted psychotherapy, it can help patients build communication skills and trust and develop discipline.
Horses (like most animals) are judgment-free (especially the ones chosen for such therapies), so that can help a person who may struggle with the stigma of mental illness or addiction. It’s something very in-the-moment between horse and human, to simply stand there and stroke the side of its head or to lead it around as it gently shuffles along.
Some patients might be excited to interact with horses used in therapy, while others may be hesitant. They’re large, powerful creatures, after all. A horse’s height is measured in hands, from the highest part of the withers, where the neck meets the back. So a 15-hand horse (the Thoroughbreds you’d see racing the Kentucky Derby tend to range from about 15 to 17 hands; Clydesdales can average a full hand higher) would be about 5 feet tall from that shoulder area, and that’s not even counting the head and neck. Not only are they tall, but they’re sizable, too. Ponies tend to be shorter and lighter, but many horses can easily be 1,000 lbs or more. (Clydesdales, for example, can easily weigh 2,000 lbs.)
The Role of Horses in Addiction Treatment
The horses at Gypsy Wind are themselves healing from past abuse, but they’re conditioned and certified to work with two-legged patients – even children. All the horses have many years of experience.
Not everyone is willing to interact with the horses, of course. They’re large animals and may frighten some people, but these equines are gentle and accustomed to people, so with the help of Gypsy Wind’s counselors and the encouragement of Mountain Springs’ behavioral therapists, the experience should be harmless.
Building trust is an important goal in addiction treatment. That’s not only trust in others, but also oneself. Mountain explains the type of boundaries they encounter, how strong they must be, and who we should strengthen our boundaries with. It can be an intense and emotional experience and a good way to get out of your own head for a bit. For someone fearful, the goal is to try new things be open to the experience. It could end up being what you needed.
In these moments the patient might let their guard down a bit, distracted by or focused on the animal. That can help with anxiety, boundaries, focus, and more.
Scientific Support for Equine Therapy
Equine therapy is a form of experiential treatment where the focus is on the experience (which could be play-acting, particularly for children, spending time outdoors or with animals, or making art). It can help people be more in the moment, confront or explore troubling emotions, or improve self-regulation (helping a person think before they act).
Because equine rehabilitation is a newer discipline, there isn’t as much data out there about its effectiveness, but what is available has been positive. So has the anecdotal data.
Animal-assisted therapy (AAT), under which horse rehab would fall, has been found to be beneficial for patients with co-occurring disorders, particularly mental health and substance use disorders. One study found that AAT using dogs helped people in their day-to-day skills, and it helped them exercise more self-control. One meta-analysis also found that AAT could help individuals with trauma.
Equine therapy can address many concerns, but in terms of treating psychological issues, the facilitator will observe the horse-human interaction, interpret, and then advise the patient. Horses are very intuitive to human body language, so it’s an opportunity to improve self-awareness, confidence, and self-esteem.
History of Equine Therapy
In some ways, equine therapy has been around for centuries. There are reports of it, or the benefits of riding, dating back to ancient Greece, as well as during the 16th and 18th centuries.
In the late 19th century, a French neurologist noted that therapeutic riding had a number of benefits, running from improved balance, muscle tone, and mood among his patients.
In the 1950s, Liz Hartel, an equestrian who won Olympic silver, gained attention because she had some paralysis due to polio, and riding helped her leg muscles regain strength.
In 1969 two large organizations sprung up: The British Riding for the Disabled Association and the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (now known as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, or PATH).
The goal of what became PATH was to advise and provide safety guidelines, training, and certification for various riding centers in the United States.
In terms of modern equine psychotherapy, that’s a more recent development. It started in the 1990s at the Turn-About Ranch residential treatment center in Utah. A social worker and self-described cowboy were working with troubled teens and began to use horses to work with the youngsters. Equine psychotherapy and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) grew from that. Today EAGALA trains and certifies riding instructors and accredits various U.S. riding centers.
Equine Therapy For Mental Health
What is equine therapy used for? It can help with a number of mental health disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction.
Because horses can pick up on and reflect human emotion (in part because they are prey animals and must remain alert and in tune for their own survival), they are very good at being present and picking up environmental cues.
They are also social animals and work well not only among their species but also with humans. (As evidenced by mankind’s long relationship with horses.) When a person is conflicted or not in harmony with their environment, horses can pick up on that. (Or, if you say you’re fine, and you’re really not, these horses can pick up on that.) That ability to read people can be helpful in developing more openness and emotional honesty.
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.
Talk with one of our Treatment Specialists!
Call 24/7: 949-276-2886