In recent years, the field of Equine Therapy has grown considerably. It is now becoming more mainstream to take your troubles to the barn and get help from an Equine Therapist of some sort. But how do you know which one?

There are five distinct types of Equine Therapy which are all designed to help with different problems and work with different populations:

Hippotherapy is probably the oldest, and most well-known, of the group. Don’t be confused by the name, which is from the Greek word for the horse – “Hippo”, as Hippotherapy is simply the use of the horse for facilitating muscular rehabilitation. Commonly it is performed by registered occupational therapists or physiotherapists combined with an equine expert to help the individual strengthen or maintain muscle groups. Hippotherapy is an effective therapy for conditions such as autism, cerebral palsy, arthritis, multiple sclerosis, head injury, stroke, or even spinal cord injury.

Therapeutic Horseback Riding is another therapy which involves sitting on the horse to develop muscle tone, strength and coordination. This form of therapy may or may not be supervised by a physiotherapist and usually involves some instruction of riding skills. The goal is to improve skill, strength, balance and coordination.

Equine Assisted Activities Therapy is a form of therapy that does not involve riding but may involve work with or around horses for the purpose of helping individuals with improve things such as body awareness, assertiveness, responsibility, emotion regulation, self-esteem, muscular coordination, empathy and many other basic life skills.

Equine Assisted Learning is a new field which promotes personal growth and development through equine – human interactions. It is usually a class or group learning experience with a structured plan and set goals. Participants may be working on the same issues or everyone may have different issues. Skills learned are boundaries, empathy, emotion regulation, self-confidence, non-verbal body language, awareness of self and other and clear communication.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is the use of horses in any form to help individuals manage or overcome mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, trauma, grief, social anxiety, interpersonal issues, substance use disorders, autism, ADHD, and many others.

Why use horses, and for what specific purposes?

One reason why horses are so beneficial for psychotherapy is because human beings almost always have an automatic emotional response to them. Think about the movie industry for a moment, and films such as The Black Stallion, Sea Biscuit or Phar Lap. Even non-horse people connect emotionally to the equines in these films. There is something magical and even mystical about horses that has been written about, painted, sculpted and elevated to an iconic status since the beginning of time. Because of this, it is easy to use the horse-human interaction as a learning opportunity to facilitate emotional growth and development in people. Humans naturally feel awe and sometimes fear around these beautiful but very large animals.

One example of how Equine Assisted Psychotherapy works well is in the treatment of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) symptoms. The typical characteristics associated with ADHD are difficulties with sustained attention, impulsivity, hyperactivity and impaired social relationships. Several studies have shown significant symptom improvement with Equine Assisted Psychotherapy interventions.

Learning to be more mindful in their interactions, to move slowly and with purpose, to respect the horse’s space and not rush the interaction is extremely beneficial for individuals with ADHD. Sudden impulsive actions create panic in most horses. Practicing self-management around the horses is one way that individuals with ADHD can improve symptoms that interfere with their functioning in all areas of their lives. In addition to this, being around horses in a mindful way slows breathing, heart rate and brain activity in human beings. This translates to greater ability to sustain attention and inhibit impulses. Several studies have shown that Equine Assisted Psychotherapy for ADHD can also reduce the psychopharmaceutical interventions necessary for adequate functioning in individuals with this disorder.

Part of the reason that equine psychotherapy works so well is because of the reduction of cortisol levels in the bodies of individuals involved in equine therapies. Working with, and around, horses lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones and increases oxytocin (the hormone involved in human bonding and calming). All of these things can help children and adults who have histories of trauma.

One small study published in Frontiers of Veterinary Science (a Veterinary journal rather than a psychological journal) a group of researchers showed that a small number of children with neurodevelopmental disorders (autism, ADHD) improved their motor skills when equine therapy was combined with brain development training done by registered speech therapist.

Horses offer immediate non-verbal feedback for us on how our body, facial expressions and emotions are affecting them.

Horses offer immediate non-verbal feedback for us on how our body, facial expressions and emotions are affecting them. This makes horses the perfect instructors for helping to teach social emotional relationship skills for individuals. One area this is especially beneficial is in the treatment of autism. The immediacy of non-judgemental feedback from a large animal is more powerful than any verbal human feedback could be. It is because the horse lives in the moment and responds directly to what is happening in the here and now (not holding on to what happened last week or last year) that they are so effective in helping autistic individuals to recognize what’s happening between themselves and another being. Eventually some of this knowledge translates to human interactions.

Interactions with horses have been seen as therapeutic for many decades. In whatever form they take, equine therapy can be a powerful intervention for a wide variety of human problems and conditions.

If you are interested in learning more about any of these therapies, you can find more information here:

National Center For Equine Assisted Therapies

Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association

Professional Association for Equine Facilitated Wellness