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Horses as Healers: Why Equine Therapy Gets Results

 

Horses are large and physically powerful, but they can be surprisingly gentle, with traits that make them ideal therapy animals. It's true that there's very little scientific research attesting to the benefits of equine therapy. It is, however, impossible to discount the vast amount of anecdotal evidence from physicians, physical therapists, teachers, parents, and most importantly, people with disabilities-being around and working with horses can have some incredible therapeutic results.

How Neuroatypical People can Benefit from Equine Therapy

Equine therapy is the use of horses as a therapeutic tool for helping children and adults recover from physical or psychological trauma, and for promoting emotional growth and healing for people who are affected by a neurological disorder. This type of therapy can be used to help people with a wide range of disorders, including ADD and ADHD; autism, Asperger's syndrome, and related disorders; anxiety, depression, and mood and behaviour disorders; and stroke and other forms of brain injury. In particular, equine therapy is increasingly used as a therapeutic tool for children and young people with autism spectrum disorders, ADD, and ADHD. Studies show that equine therapy can provide many benefits, such as improvements in communication skills, stress tolerance, impulse control, empathy, assertiveness, and independence. People who undergo this type of therapy can benefit from improved self-esteem and greater emotional awareness, better interpersonal relationships, and an improved sense of social responsibility. In short, working with horses as part of therapy can help people affected by neurological disorders to navigate the world more successfully.

What is it about horses that make them ideal for the role of therapeutic animal? One reason is that horses have a natural tendency to mirror the behaviour and attitudes of the people around them, which, like the mirroring technique often used by therapists, is a powerful way of encouraging people to become receptive to understanding their own thought patterns. Linked with this is the fact that horses are herd animals, and can form strong bonds with humans as well as with other animals. As animals, they interact with people in a completely non-judgemental fashion, and the value of this shouldn't be underestimated. People with behavioural, mood, and neurological problems are often subject to the stigma society associates with these disorders, and the opportunity to bond with a horse is therefore an opportunity to form a relationship in which there is no possibility of this type of stigma occurring.

For children with Asperger's syndrome, for example, there are both physical and psychological aspects to equine therapy that are of considerable benefit. The sensations associated with riding a horse are slow and soothing, helping to stimulate the child's interest, while enabling them to focus on the horse and its movement. Children on the autism spectrum often have difficulty forming new relationships, and the ability to form a bond with a horse can therefore provide a powerful self esteem boost that often improves motivation in other areas too. Working with horses can help children become more verbal and calmer, too, as they learn that the animals respond to gentle verbal commands.

Riding Therapy for People with Physical Disabilities

Caring for, riding, and working with horses can be physically intensive, but overall these activities are much more pleasant than, say, spending hours engaged in physical therapy exercises. This type of physical activity can therefore be a powerful motivator for people who have permanent physical disabilities, or who are recovering from physical injuries. The physical benefits of riding are significant, especially for people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, which causes low muscle tone and poor coordination. These physical effects make walking difficult, but often, a person who is unable to walk is still able to ride, and over time, the activity helps strengthen and tone muscles, improve coordination, and improve general fitness.

One particular benefit of riding therapy is that the walking gait of a horse stimulates the same muscle groups that the rider would use in walking, and stimulates them in the same way as if that person actually were walking. Also of note is the fact that riding stimulates muscle groups in the upper body, trunk, pelvis, and legs simultaneously, also helps improve flexibility, balance, and posture. It's not just the physical benefits that are important, of course. People who take part in physical therapy with horses are also likely to reap emotional and mental benefits such as improved confidence, self esteem, and motivation.

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Revised:10/01/2014