For Mental Health

The role of equine therapy in treating mental health

Horses are often viewed as a mirror to those undergoing therapy. This is a quality particularly unique to horses adapted from being prey animals, always alert to potential predators, and highly social animals, tending to run in herds. It is this very nature of hypersensitivity to subtle changes around them that make equine perfect partners for professionals teaching a broad range of coping and life skills. Because of their sensitivity, horses respond to people differently based on the individual’s emotional state at the time.

Proven Effective

In treating stress, anxiety, depression and more

Equine therapy is supportive therapy to be used in conjunction with other therapy methods. It has been proven to lower high blood pressure and reduce heart rate, relieve stress, and lessen the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Equine therapy has also been used to help those grappling with addictions and mental health disorders by helping them develop skills for healthy living.

No Judgement

The horse doesn’t know what you’ve done, doesn’t see what you’re wearing, doesn’t know where you’re from

Horses are peaceful, gentle animals. They are uncomplicated and straightforward in their interactions.  There is no lying or manipulating, no judging or blaming. Just their presence can provide a profoundly healing experience.

Those who struggle with trauma, addictions and other mental health conditions have experienced the pain of “feeling.” They may immediately default to drug use or other obsessive or addictive behaviors such as sex, eating or gambling, as they try to desensitize from sadness, fear, or anger. The first step to successful therapy is learning to identify, experience and cope with emotions and not try to avoid or run from them.

Equine therapy is one powerful way to break down barriers and reach deep into thoughts and feelings. Instead of trying to reason through problems, which often leads to denial, blaming others, self-victimizing, or intellectualizing their way around their problems, equine therapy allows them to use their bodies and hearts to feel and react in the moment, as a form of mindfulness.

Simple activities such as haltering, leading and grooming can have a profound effect on people in their approach to others with awareness and respect.

Somehow, the horse makes it clear, without saying a word, when you’ve crossed his boundary. Attempting to control the horse simply will not work. At the same time, becoming detached or passive can make it pretty hard to lead a horse.

Horses have a unique ability to sense emotions and react accordingly. If someone is angry or aggressive, the horse may become obstinate.

How It Works

Stable Environment resident therapist Ally Keenan talks about Equine and Mental Health

Those who struggle with trauma, addictions and other mental health conditions have experienced the pain of “feeling.” They may immediately default to drug use or other obsessive or addictive behaviors such as sex, eating or gambling, as they try to desensitize from sadness, fear, or anger. The first step to successful therapy is learning to identify, experience and cope with emotions and not try to avoid or run from them.

Equine therapy is one powerful way to reach deep into thoughts and feelings. Instead of trying to reason through problems, which often leads to denial, blaming others, self-victimizing, or intellectualizing their way around their problems, equine therapy allows them to use their bodies and hearts to feel and react in the moment, in a form of mindfulness.

In your first experience, you realize that horses will uniquely sense emotions and react accordingly, if someone approaches in anger or aggressively, the horse might become obstinate. If the horse senses anxiety, he may get skittish. But when the approach is open and calm, the horse is more likely to respond in kind. Witnessing the horse’s response prompts a self-awareness and people see themselves in an instant, and in a more realistic way.

People with addictions and mental health issues tend to have experienced periods of prolonged drug use and some form of isolation and find themselves emotionally underdeveloped. They may have problems relating to or growing close to others while managing to create close bonds with horses.

Equine therapy helps people begin to recognize their conscious and subconscious process of communicating and interacting with other people. Horses, however, do not talk, they rely on nonverbals and are excellent communicators. By learning to understand horse behavior people can learn how others operate in the world and the way their behavior may impact their relationships.

Because horses are gregarious, typically found in packs, they are sophisticated social animals and begin immediately building connections and relationships with people, seeing them as members of their herd. An individual will then decide if they will stick to their old methods of interaction, or accept this unique opportunity to explore a new way to relate to others.

Although riding horses can be part of equine therapy, we don’t practice this at Stable Environment. The most important work with horses takes place during the interactions between the individual and the horse. Simple activities such as haltering, leading and grooming can have a profound effect on people in approaching others with awareness and respect.

It is during the processing of activities through the guidance of skilled therapist that people open up about what they have seen and felt as they interacted with the horse. Here, they begin to identify ways in which their views of the world may be inaccurate or misguided. They begin to recognize how they may have been projecting their own views, issues, and problems onto others.

Equine therapy will quickly reveal an individual’s weakness in thoughts and behaviors when it comes to adjusting to the environment or a situation. While working with a horse in a session with the client, the therapist may make comparisons between the client’s behavior with the horse and patterns demonstrated in their own lives, confronting issues such as challenging situations or detachment from the family. Discussions may be simple, such as how much personal space the horse needs to feel at ease.

Somehow, the horse makes it clear, without saying a word, when you’ve crossed their boundary. Attempting to control the horse simply will not work. At the same time, becoming detached or passive can make it pretty hard to lead a horse.

When a client arrives at Stable Environment, they see these large animals and sometimes fear that the horse won’t like them or will somehow hurt them either physically or emotionally. This can bring up past trauma, unmet needs, and feelings of inadequacy or lack of control. But they can’t give in to their old stand-by reaction – to hide or get defensive – so they learn to tolerate and process the emotion.

Honestly, when doing equine therapy, it feels like I’m witnessing grace. In the stable with those horses, things are as they should be. But people bring all manner of problems into their environment, and these special animals just accept, there is no judgment. They take everyone as they are, defects and all.

It is in the safety of Stable Environment that clients face their fears and learn to build confidence, to overcome challenges. Those who begin intimidated and nervous find themselves quite surprised at how quickly they can process those feelings and move to a comfortable place in their relationship with the horse. Liberated by the experience, they begin to develop the confidence necessary to dive into other fears and apply their new knowledge to everyday life.

Clients at Stable Environment don’t have to love horses or have experience working with animals in order to benefit from equine therapy. They only have to be willing to give it a chance and move in a different direction than they have in the past.

Horses are peaceful, gentle animals. They are uncomplicated and straightforward in their interactions. There is no lying or manipulating, no judging or blaming. Just their presence can provide a profoundly healing experience.

I recently read about an equine therapy client who endured terrible childhood abuse in her family. The therapist did not design some special equine session but instead just allowed this client to sit quietly in the pasture with the horse. After about an hour or so, the client, tearfully said, “I’ve never had anyone so big be so nice to me before.”

The experience created what amounts to an “alternative memory” for that client. The client had assumed that someone bigger or more powerful than her would abuse her, she now had a personal experience that demonstrated to her that she could trust again.

For us at Stable Environment, this story fits our model. This therapist used her client’s own personal experience while working with the horse to get her to open up and grow in their ability to trust, to build relationships and to ask for help when needed.

These are just a few examples of the personal growth that can take place through the “magic” of equine therapy. There are many more, such as learning to accept responsibility, becoming a caregiver, or more properly taking care of oneself. Personal attributes can be developed such as humility, patience, a sense of pride or self-esteem. Ultimately, a client gains an appreciation for the simple joys of life. These all contribute to the process of personal change and sustained improvement in mental health.

Few settings are more suited to equine therapy than Stable Environment. Clients at Stable Environment participate in an equine-assisted psychotherapy group at least weekly.

At Stable Environment, the land and the horses are intrinsic members of the treatment team. If you love animals and nature, you’re going to be in good company here.

“Why do I ride horses? Because I look at my horse and I see my hopes and my dreams. I see my happiness, I see my success. I see my pride and my soul. I look in the mirror and I see a person. I look at my horse and I see myself. “
Anonymous • Quote of the Day
“The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and freedom.”
Sharon Ralls Lemon • Quote of the Day