What is Equine Assisted Therapy?

By Josie F. Turner, Journalist specialized in Animal Welfare. January 1, 2020
What is Equine Assisted Therapy?

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Anyone who has lived with animals knows that they are capable of improving our physical and mental health in a number of ways. This is as true of cats, dogs and smaller house pets as it is of horses. In fact, Equine therapy - also known as Equine-Assisted Therapy -can be traced as far back as the Ancient Greeks, who noted the therapeutic effects of horse riding.

Psychological and physical therapies involving horses have been developed up to the present day. This type of animal therapy is believed to improve the quality of life for people suffering from numerous conditions, ranging from elderly people with Parkinson's to children with autism. So, you may be wondering: “What is equine therapy?”. In this AnimalWised article, we look at the different types of equine therapy, its uses, benefits and possible careers in the field.

You may also be interested in: What Are Equines? - Types and Characteristics

What is equine therapy?

You have probably heard of therapy dogs, but what about therapy horses? Equine therapy - often referred to as Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) or Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT) - involves treating physical, cognitive or psychological conditions through professionally guided interaction with horses.

Anyone who has spent time with horses will know that they are highly sensitive and perceptive animals, capable of reading human moods. This makes them ideal companions for treating cognitive and other mental or psychological disorders. In addition, the rhythmic motion of riding a horse is very similar to the human gait, which can help people suffering from physical disorders to regain strength and flexibility.

The therapeutic effects of horse riding were first observed by the ancient Greeks and ‘hippotherapy’ is mentioned by Hippocrates as far back as 460 BC. The benefits of horse riding were then discussed and written about by physicians and therapists across Europe from the 1500s to the 1800s. In 1970, the French neurologist Chassaigne published the first known study on the physical benefits of horse riding. It was only from the 1940s-60s, however, that equine therapy really took off and began to to be practiced as we know it today.

Equine therapy is a developing field of animal therapy and non-standardized terminology, small sample sizes and other methodological issues limit the validity of much of the existing research. Professionals in the field have called for greater rigor and additional studies in order to comprehensively demonstrate the efficacy of equine assisted therapies in treating physical and mental disorders.

What is equine therapy used to treat?

Horse therapy is considered a holistic type of therapy, since it can be used to treat a number of conditions. Interacting with an intelligent animal like the horse can have not only physical benefits, but also social, mental and psychological ones. Some of these effects (such as benefits for children with cerebral palsy[1]) have been better documented than others. However, equine therapy has also shown to be useful in improving the condition of individuals suffering from the following:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • ADD or ADHD
  • Autism
  • Down syndrome
  • Spinal cord injuries
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Developmental disorders
  • Psychological disorders

Horse therapy for autism

Among autistic individuals, reduced cognitive flexibility means they cannot react to and interact in social situations in the way that non-affected individuals do. Low self-esteem, social anxiety and dependence are often secondary symptoms suffered as a result. Recent studies have shown that equine therapy can be helpful in treating certain aspects of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), particularly such behavioral skills and social communication.

While there is still limited evidence of equine therapy having a positive effect on the motor, cognitive or functional skills of individuals with ASD, it has been shown to improve certain aspects of their social functioning, particularly when applied to children[2][3].

What is Equine Assisted Therapy? - What is equine therapy used to treat?

Types of equine therapy

It is important to mention that different organizations in countries across the world often use varying terms for the different types of equine therapy they study or offer. The non-standard nature of this terminology can be confusing, but we have tried to include the best known and recognized terms in this list of the types of equine therapy:

  • Therapeutic horseback riding: this is one of the best known types of horse therapy. Under therapeutic horseback riding, the individual uses riding to help develop confidence, improve coordination and tone weak muscles, among other things. The person also takes part in other equine-related activities such as grooming and looking after the horse. This is to help develop responsibility and increase capacity for interaction and independence.

  • Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP): also known as Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), this involves working with horses in different ways, as guided by a medical health professional. While given different names by different organizations, the main aim here is to use activities related to equines to treat emotional and psychological conditions. These usually involve groundwork and grooming rather than riding, although some therapists may recommend riding as well. EFP can be used in conjunction with talk and other types of therapy.

  • Hippotherapy: this is equine physical therapy or occupational therapy, based primarily on the benefits gained from the movement of the horse. It involves riding, but is more directed and focused than therapeutic horseback riding. The aim of hippotherapy is to treat functional disabilities such as coordination, strength, balance and even speech. It involves a horse handler and a professional therapist working together to guide the horse and patient.

  • Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL): this type of equine therapy is designed to address developmental or social issues, using horses. Its aim is to promote individual and social growth, help foster self-esteem, confidence and responsibility as well as to develop life skills. As with EFP, this involves groundwork more often than riding. The term is also used to refer to training programs for professionals who want to work in the field of EAAT.
  • Therapeutic carriage driving: this type of horse therapy is meant for people with disabilities too severe or risky to allow direct horseback riding. It consists of controlling the horse from a carriage (adapted to a wheelchair if necessary). This provides the rider with some of the physical and emotional benefits of interacting with the horse, while accommodating for their needs.

  • Interactive vaulting: here, movements are made on or around the horse (as in equestrian gymnastics) and guided by a physical therapist. These can range from simply mounting or sitting on the horse's back to more complicated movements, depending on the individual's need. Interactive vaulting is said to have both physiotherapeutic and psycho-pedagogical benefits.

  • Other Equine-Assisted Activities: there are several other equine-assisted activities that may not be listed here or that are named differently by different organizations. These include grooming, stable work, working with parades or demonstrations, and so on. They may be used in conjunction with other types of equine therapy, as determined by the therapist or medical professional.
What is Equine Assisted Therapy? -

Benefits of equine therapy

The traits specific to horses and their relationship with humans are what provide equine therapy with a unique set of potential benefits. We have already discussed how a horse's gait and the motion of riding can help rehabilitate people which physical disabilities thanks to the way it mimics human walking, strengthening the rider's pelvis. It has also been suggested that horses' personalities and forms of communication with humans help drive emotional breakthroughs and social skills[4].

That said, there is still some debate about the scientifically proven benefits of equine therapy. As we have explained, there are methodological failings in many of the studies that have been carried out, which makes results difficult to consolidate. However, recent reviews of the literature suggest that equine assisted therapy shows a degree of effectiveness in treating physical and neurological conditions, while acknowledging the need for further research[5][6].

In terms of effectiveness, there is some evidence to show that equine therapy can be beneficial in treating particular disorders such as autism, and may be useful in treating other psychiatric and behavioral problems as well. It has also been shown to improve gross motor function, posture and balance[7]. At the very least, horse therapy is acknowledged not to be harmful, even in cases where it has not been proven to treat a problem.

What is Equine Assisted Therapy? - Benefits of equine therapy

Carreers in equine therapy

For a person to observe significant health benefits from equine therapy, it is absolutely essential that the therapy be carried out under the supervision of professionals trained for the purpose. Enrolling in a horseback riding class can provide you with physical exercise and allow you to interact with horses. However, the aim of equine therapy is to treat specific mental or physical conditions in a more directed way, designed and led by trained specialists.

The professionals involved in horse therapy belong to a range of different disciplines. This is because Equine-Assisted Therapy requires professionals both to train the horses involved, and to guide and assess the human patients undergoing the treatment (which, as we have stated, may be physical or psychological). Here is a list of some of the specialists involved in horse therapy:

  • Psychologists
  • Physiotherapists
  • Pedagogues
  • Riding instructors
  • Horse handlers
  • Occupational therapists

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Depending on where you live there may be different career, degree or certification requirements and opportunities, should you be interested in working in the field of equine therapy.

What is Equine Assisted Therapy? - Carreers in equine therapy

If you want to read similar articles to What is Equine Assisted Therapy?, we recommend you visit our Facts about the animal kingdom category.

  1. Whalen, C. N., & Case-Smith, J. (2012). Therapeutic effects of horseback riding therapy on gross motor function in children with cerebral palsy: a systematic review. Physical & Occupational Therapy In Pediatrics, 32(3), 229-242.
  2. Srinivasan, S. M., Cavagnino, D. T., & Bhat, A. N. (2018). Effects of equine therapy on individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic review. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 5(2), 156-175.
  3. Harris, A., & Williams, J. M. (2017). The impact of a horse riding intervention on the social functioning of children with autism spectrum disorder. Int. Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 14(7), 776.
  4. Malcolm, R., Ecks, S., & Pickersgill, M. (2018). 'It just opens up their world': autism, empathy, and the therapeutic effects of equine interactions. Anthropology & Medicine, 25(2), 220–234.
  5. Muñoz Lasa, S., et al. (2013). Animal assisted interventions in neurorehabilitation: a review of the most recent literature. Neurology (English Ed.), 30(1), 1-7.
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