What is Animal Assisted Therapy?
Equine assisted psychotherapy is an emerging form of therapeutic intervention in which horses are used as tools for clients to gain self-understanding and emotional growth. Equine assisted psychotherapy is a type of animal assisted therapy, a field of mental health that recognizes the bond between animals and humans and the potential for emotional healing that can occur when a relationship is formed between the two species.
Equine assisted psychotherapy involves equine activities set up and facilitated by a licensed mental health professional, often with the help or standby support of a horse professional. These activities are most often performed on the ground (rather than riding), and include such things as grooming, feeding, haltering and leading the horse. During the process of working with the horse, the therapist and client engage in talk therapy, processing feelings, behaviors and patterns. The ultimate goal for the client is to build skills such as personal responsibility, assertiveness, non-verbal communication, self-confidence, and self-control.
Why use horses for psychotherapy? One reason is because horses need a lot of care. A client can put aside his or her own troubles in the immediate job of caring for the horse. Horses are large and strong, which challenges a person to overcome his fear in order to work with the animal. Horses mirror moods, too; they respond negatively to negative emotions, teaching the client that his behavior can affect others, and making it necessary to modify behavior in order to work successfully with the animal.
Much can be learned from simply observing horse behavior. Horses can be stubborn or defiant, playful or moody. They have a variety of "herd dynamics" such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another, and grazing together. In the process of describing the horse and the interactions between the horses, clients can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.
Equine assisted psychotherapy is thought to be an effective short-term therapeutic approach for both individuals and families, addressing a number of mental health problems, including behavioral issues, depression and anxiety, low self esteem, eating disorders, ADD/ADHD, post traumatic stress disorder, and relationship problems. While there is a need for research to support anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of Equine assisted psychotherapy, this type of animal assisted therapy is slowly gaining support among mental health professionals.