How to cure your anxiety with equine therapy

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NEWS | Lifestyle

Animals offer a huge amount of emotional support. Besides owning a pet, animals are sometimes used in therapeutic scenarios to help patients deal with challenging emotional experiences. In this case, horses help with the mental health of patients.

Equine therapy incorporates horses in the therapeutic process. People engage in activities such as feeding, grooming or leading a horse while being supervised. This could help people develop skills such as emotional regulation, self-confidence or responsibility.

Terms for this sort of therapy vary:

  • Equine-assisted mental health
  • Equine-assisted therapy
  • Equine-assisted psychotherapy
  • Equine-assisted counselling
  • Equine-facilitated psychotherapy

“A horse can only trust us if we trust ourselves.”

According to Germany’s most famous motivation trainer, Antje Heimsoeth, fear, stress, pressurising expectations or mental blocks prevent us from achieving our equestrian goals. Equine assisted activities help build trust between rider and the horse. When our self-confidence in our own capabilities increase, we begin winning equestrian competitions. 

Caring for horses can help not only in improving our own mental health, but also connect better with horses. In her book “Mental Training for Riders” she graphically explains how personal drawbacks can be turned into personal strengths. This not only increases the enjoyment in riding, but also the success. 

Experiential vs cognitive and behavioural theories

Equine-assisted therapy is growing in popularity as it has an experiential approach. This learning involves, according to psychologist David Kolb, “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

This type of learning differs from cognitive or behavioural theories. Cognitive theories emphasize the role of the mental process while behavioural theories do not consider the role of subjective experience in learning.

However, the experiential theory takes a more holistic approach. It emphasizes how experiences, including cognition, environmental factors and emotions that influence the process.

But, how do we know this type of therapy is for us? Well it depends on your own preferences. People who are considered “watchers” prefer reflective observation. 

Those who are “doers” are likely to engage in active experimentation. This is why therapy with horses works best for those who learn best by “doing”.


Equine Therapy Benefits

Horses offer unique traits that makes them a top choice in animal-assisted therapies. Anxiety expert Dr. Robin Zasio thinks horses bring the following unique elements to therapy:

Horses are non-judgmental: Therapists do their best to offer a safe space for clients to explore deep emotional hurtful experiences. It is sometimes uncomfortable for clients to openly share these thoughts. However, building therapeutic rapport is needed for building trust and practicing vulnerability in session.

When having a horse present at the time of the session, patients often enjoy a sense of peace. These animals only react to the client’s behaviour and emotions, so there is no threat of bias of their emotional experience.

They provide feedback and mirror emotions: Horses are good observers and maintain vigilant to movement and emotion. They often mirror a person’s behaviour or emotions. This helps understand and connect with the client to feel safe.

Also, this helps patients maintain a sense of self-awareness. They use the horse’s behaviour to receive feedback on how they are. This helps them check in and process what is happening at the moment in order to understand better their feelings.

Horses help people manage vulnerability: Clients can find it hard to open up about emotional challenges, past experiences or life transitions. When something feels painful to speak of, it can be easier to process using the horse. It can also help to align their experience with the horse’s experiences. When externalizing the content, it can be easier to approach and process through.

Additional benefits include self-esteem, social awareness, independence, emotional awareness, adaptability or distress tolerance amongst others. Horses require work. They are fed, watered, groomed and exercised. This type of care can be therapeutic as it helps establish a routine and structure, and caring and nurturing something builds empathy.

You will like: Our show FEI Ride Show dives into very particular equine therapy programmes in Florida.


Anxiety and horse therapy: how can it help?

According to WHO, this mental illness affects around 300 million adults in the world. This means almost 1 in every 5 people have an anxiety disorder. Although most people experience levels of anxiety at points of their lives, on occasions people meet clinical diagnostic criteria for anxiety. Some types of anxiety disorders can include:

  • Panic attacks or panic disorder
  • Specific phobia
  • Agoraphobia
  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder

People who struggle with anxiety are worried about their past and fear for their future. Dr. Zasio points out that working with a horse during a therapeutic process can create an opportunity to “stay present and focused on the task at hand”. This avoids the constant thinking about not being in control of things.

Horses are vigilant and sensitive to emotions. They can sense danger and respond with heightened awareness, and this typically leads to change in their behaviour and attempts to get away. Clients suffering with anxiety can relate to this ability to sense danger as well.

Moreover, when using equine-assisted psychotherapy clients practice vulnerability in a safe environment. As they learn to interact with the horse, they are asked to step out of their comfort zone with the support of the therapist and the horse.