How Equine-Assisted Therapy Works
Horses are big, powerful, and, sometimes, scary. They get our attention, but they're nonjudgmental when they mirror our behavior. This enables clients to learn about their behaviors without getting defensive. Through targeted questions, therapists help participants analyze their interactions with the horse and the other participants.
Based on the client's needs, the therapy team gives the client a set of instructions, such as, "Observe the horses to see which one gets along with you" or "Build an obstacle course by choosing items that represent things that distract you throughout the day; then halter the horse and lead it through the obstacle course." No further instructions are given, and the client completes the process (or not) as he sees fit. "It isn't the task that is important," says Bass, "but what the client becomes aware of -- his thoughts and emotions, as he works with the horse." There isn't a lot of research supporting EAP's effectiveness. One EAP study, conducted by researcher Kay Trotter, PhD, LPC, NCC, showed that horse therapy improved hyperactivity and impulsivity in at-risk children and adolescents.
As a national certified counselor, Trotter followed two groups. One group participated in equine-assisted group counseling treatment, while the other group received an award-winning, curriculum-based school counseling intervention.
The results of Trotter's study suggested that equine-assisted treatment was statistically more effective in improving kids' ability to focus and stay on task. The therapy also significantly improved symptoms of aggression, depression, and anxiety in the group. The participants of equine-assisted treatment adjusted better to new routines and teachers, and easily shifted from one task to another. Self-esteem and self-respect increased, and friendships were less stressful.
Instant feedback is part of the reason that therapy with these "powerful and interesting beings" is so effective, says Kit Muellner, founder of Hope Ranch and a licensed, independent clinical social worker. "What's more, clients feel that they've achieved something on their own, rather than being told to do something by a parent or teacher. A 1,500-pound animal responds the way you want him to because you were able to focus. So you've accomplished something that you wanted to do, versus doing something somebody else wanted you to do."
Next: Riding High