Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), or equine therapy, is a complementary therapy that uses interaction with horses as a way of exploring a patient’s behavioural patterns in an individual or group setting.
According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), which is a leading authority for EAP professionals, this type of therapy is used to address “behavioural issues, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs.”
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is a hands-on form of psychotherapy in which the participants work with horses to carry out various small tasks. It is a team approach – “a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals.”
One of the advantages of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is that even people who are afraid of horses or have never ridden can take part: one of the principles of EAP is that no actual horseback riding is involved. Simple exercises like putting a bridle and saddle on the horse are used to encourage participants to apply and develop skills such as teamwork, non-verbal communication, assertiveness and problem solving.
There are many recognised benefits of equine therapy, including increased self-awareness, improved social skills, greater confidence, responding-not-reacting and anger management.
A recent study by the University of Rostock in Germany shows that human-animal interactions increase levels of oxytocin, also known as the “bonding hormone”. This in turn triggers an increase in trust towards others, enhances empathy and learning, lowers fear and anxiety, and improves pain management. This is of particular relevance for substance dependents, whose self-confidence, social interaction skills and support networks have been negatively affected by their addiction. Trust can slowly be regained through equine therapy.
Thanks to their advanced animal instincts, horses can easily read intentions and feelings. According to EAGALA, horses become “metaphors in specific ground-based experiences”, meaning that horses can mirror human relationships, helping patients to spot unhealthy patterns in their own interpersonal interactions.
“The horses help the patients reflect on how their behaviour impacts the outside world. They can compare with what’s happening to them in real life and try to face some of their issues,” explains Guy Heath, Castle Craig’s EAGALA trained specialist.
Patient experiences during EAP sessions are examined together with the therapist. According to EAGALA, equine therapy is based on the idea that people “have the best solutions for themselves when given the opportunity to discover them.” And it is the opportunity equine therapy gives patients to identify personal feelings, reactions and behaviours for themselves without being given strict instructions that is of most benefit. Every patient comes out of a session having discovered something completely different about him or herself, or learned unexpected things about others. (Read the story of a Castle Craig employee’s personal experience with equine therapy.)
Guy Heath explains that horses are non-judgemental and that this can play an important role in treating addiction: “Horses are naturally curious, social creatures who do not worry about ego, looks or qualification. They don’t think back and provide unconditional acceptance, a major factor in the healing process.”
Despite the large number of trials and research already conducted, the debate surrounding the effectiveness of equine therapy beyond short-term improvements in communication and anxiety release is still ongoing
However, patients’ own accounts of their experiences of this kind of therapy and what they’ve learned about themselves as a result of working closely with animals prove that equine therapy can provide remarkable beneficial effects and is a welcome complement to more traditional therapies. “I feel noticeably calmer,” says one of our former patients, “less detached and able to interact better with people as my patience level has dramatically improved. My depression has lessened as well.”
Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | July 27, 2021