Equine-assisted psychotherapy involves the use of horses as vehicles for self-awareness and emotional healing and was developed by Liz Hartel, Florence Nightingale, Boris Levinson, and Leopold and Sonia Bellack. This relatively new technique is a form of animal-assisted therapy, which is part of a segment of the mental health world that sees the benefits of taking advantage of the natural bond between an animal and a human being. By fostering the animal-human relationship, supporters of this therapy believe that emotional recovery and transformation can occur. Animals often elicit a vivid array of nurturing emotions, and many people respond positively to the idea of caring for another being.
Animal-assisted therapy provides enormous psychological and physiological benefits that have been scientifically documented. People who interact with animals for the purpose of therapy can realize physical improvements in health that include:
- Decreased stress levels
- Reduction of anger and aggression
- Decreased hostility towards themselves and others
- Improved social interactions
- Decrease in heart rate and blood pressure to normal levels
- Increase in the release of beta-endorphins
- Improvement in self-esteem, patience, trust
- Sense of empowerment
Young children in particular can see dramatic improvements in interpersonal relationships with equine-assisted therapy. Oftentimes a child is unable to express physical and emotional comfort and closeness with others but is able to fully and freely form that type of bond with a horse or other animal. The child will willingly accept the nonjudgmental and unconditional affection and attention from an animal that they perceive they do not get from humans. This unique bond can serve to help the child develop patience, respect, empathy, acceptance, confidence, assertiveness, and responsibility. The unspoken communication between child and horse can foster true verbal and non-verbal communication skills in the child. All of these attributes help the child develop and maintain secure and mutually respectful relationships during difficult times and throughout his or her lifetime.