Is Equine Therapy Effective?

Equine therapy is an approach that involves the use of horses as agents for change. It has been used for decades but has recently gained popularity for the treatment of not only physical conditions but also psychosocial and psychological problems, such as depression and anxiety. Working with horses, nonthreatening and domiciled animals, brings unique challenges. Individuals with physical disabilities learn how to overcome their limitations in novel and empowering ways by working with horses. Techniques such as riding and carriage driving have been shown to be especially effective. Equine-assisted activities (EEAs) are at the core of equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) and are integrated into exercises that are designed to help clients address their feelings in the present. Rather than escaping their painful experiences, similar to how a horse would escape from threatening situations, clients are encouraged to work with the horse to acknowledge their uncomfortable emotional state in order to change their perception and beliefs surrounding the feelings.

In order to ascertain the effectiveness of EEAs, Alison Selby of the Child and Family Guidance Centers in Plano, Texas recently conducted a review of existing research on equine therapies for both physical and psychological challenges. She used the Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) to assess data from 103 studies. Selby found that out of 14 individual reports, nine showed significant positive outcomes as a direct result of EEAs. The remainder of the reports demonstrated little to no direct effect resulting from equine participation. The reports that provided support for EEAs were derived from studies focused on behavioral, psychological, physical, and psychosocial challenges. One of the most striking findings was the positive effect that EEAs had on mood. The results of Selby’s research clearly show that EEAs provide unique and effective opportunities for helping clients overcome physical and psychological obstacles. Selby added, “Future studies are needed that utilize rigorous and creative designs, especially longitudinal studies and comparisons with established effective treatments.”

Selby, A., Smith-Osborne, A. (2012). A systematic review of effectiveness of complementary and adjunct therapies and interventions involving equines. Health  Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029188

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • sequeira

    August 23rd, 2012 at 8:22 PM

    I’ve taken riding lessons before and I can tell you it is very pleasant when you’re trying to make friends with the horse.for people with problems that need therapy this can offer a unique opportunity of making a connection without being judged.they can then take this as a learning experience and then learn to make connections with people.and the trust and loyalty of the horse is always a great thing for someone ravaged by a problem and hence equine therapy does hold a lot of promise in my opinion.

  • ROSS

    August 23rd, 2012 at 11:51 PM

    Animals do not judge you and often offer unconditional love that most humans cannot.They can be true friends and it is something that is hard to find in humans nowadays.

    It doesn’t need an expert to list the benefits of animals.And after the proven therapeutic benefits of canines it is heartening to see equine therapy gaining popularity and interest.

  • robin

    August 24th, 2012 at 3:49 AM

    This is just an extension of other pet therapies which have been used for many years in various therapeutic settings. Dogs, horses, I don’t know what it is about these animals but for those who are in need of something calming and centering in their lives, these animals seem to be able to offer that to them. I know that humans always think of themselves at the very top of the food chain, but there is something to be said for allowing our four legged friends to calm and soothe us in a way that other humans cannot seem to do.

  • Gregg

    August 24th, 2012 at 10:43 AM

    I do believe that this sort of therapy can be beneficial to many different kinds of patients, but what I worry about is just how feasible is it to offer this treatment to so many people? How many people will actually have access to equine therapy, and is it really any better than other treatment that is available? I mean I have no doubts that it can be very successful for some but is it really any better than other tried and true therapy options that have also worked in the past?

  • Sherry Porubcansky

    August 24th, 2012 at 11:02 AM

    I’m thrilled to see this topic addressed and the positive comments. I first got on a horse when I was two. I’m forever grateful that my abusive father did love horses; as a result, whenever I get an opportunity I hang out with horses – even if it’s just feeding them some grass outside their paddocks. They’re such fascinating critters – I can’t think of one that didn’t have a sense of humor, and for me, being able to wrap my arms around a horse’s neck and bury my head in a gentle hug is an all-time favorite moment. The smell, the feel, the laughs, a peace I find nowhere else. Fall for a horse & you’ve fallen forever; gain trust and loyalty from a horse and you’ll be loved forever.

  • Agnes Taylor

    August 24th, 2012 at 11:40 PM

    I’ve known about horses being used for physical conditions but using them for psychological conditions sounds new to me. why exactly are horses and not any other animal preferred? any inherent quality in horses that dictates this choice? I’m curious to know, because I for one am terribly afraid of going anywhere near a horse.

  • lou

    August 25th, 2012 at 7:43 AM

    Are they effective?
    Why not is this feasible?
    Not everyone will have access to a horse, dogs seem like that would be a better option.
    Practically every community will have a shelter from which you could choose a therapy dog to work with clients, wouldn’t you think that this would be a little more manageable?

  • Chris

    August 25th, 2012 at 10:29 PM

    @Agnes:Horses are some of the most wonderful animals.The reason they are used in therapy are many but one I know is that horses are known to give feedback about your actions and body language, they kind of mirror what you are doing, like maybe if you are tensed the horse may exhibit the same.So they are easy to work with from a therapy point of view.

  • Matt

    August 26th, 2012 at 6:17 AM

    Horses are so calming to humans- they just seem to have that effect.

  • Blake Rogers

    August 27th, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    @ Chris- that’s so interesting to hear! I have noticed that therapists have been looking for some time for clever new ways to reach out to their patients and make some big differnces that kind of go against what we would typically see as traditional therapy modes. I appreciate the fact the everyone here for the most part seems to be open to new things and avenues for helping treat those with some for of mental illness. I appreciate reading these new advances in this field because you never know when something may come along that you feel could reach you or someone you know who could also be struggling in life.

  • Zenia

    August 28th, 2012 at 4:28 AM

    I always find it so curious to hear people talking about this, the ways that equine therapy for example can help, but I have never felt anything more than scared around a horse! Not so sure that this would be right for me because I would have a whole lot of acclimating to do before I would even feel comfortable enough to be aorund one for any length of time!

  • Tina Rae

    August 30th, 2012 at 10:43 AM

    I totally agree Sherry! There’s nothing like patting a horse and feeling the muscle beneath. Yes it’s scary and exhilirating to know how much power they have opposed to ours, perhaps this is one of the lessons…
    I too love to smell and nuzzle my head on their neck, makes me feel pure and innocent:)

  • Mary Larson-Gutman

    October 8th, 2012 at 4:47 PM

    I had bouts with depression before I purchased my first horse eight years ago. I can say that I have had very few bouts since. I believe the horse can sense a person’s mood…and this alone helps. I think there is a phrase that goes: What is good for the soul of a horse is good for the soul of a man/woman.

  • ellana

    September 23rd, 2015 at 12:14 PM

    well i love the help i got because of my depression i eventually got to be happy again. it always helps to have a friend/pet to have in your life.

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