Each year over 66,000 men, women and children with cognitive, physical, and emotional challenges — including over 6,200 veterans and active duty military members — find strength, independence and healing in the presence of horses through equine-assisted therapies and activities according to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International.
We could spend a lifetime discussing the benefits to spending time with these magnificent, four-legged animals — but what is it specifically about the nature of horses that prove to be therapeutic for individuals facing challenges or trauma?
“Horses, while they’re very large animals, are very vulnerable,” says Holly Hansen, equine-assisted psychotherapist, in an interview with U.S. News. “As prey animals, horses are hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for potential danger. People who’ve experienced trauma can really relate to that.”
This non-verbal connection and shared sense of understanding is what equine-assisted therapy is all about, and where help and healing has come to many adults and children looking to overcome addiction, anxiety, PTSD, behavioral issues or cope with various physical and developmental disorders.
Many equine therapy patients find working with horses to be a less pressured environment in comparison to traditional, in-office therapy sessions, and that it’s easier to practice vulnerability with horses, who won’t judge you or share your secrets, than it is to do with humans.
“[A person] can see himself or herself reflected back from the behavior of a horse,” explains internationally recognized Natural Horsemanship Clinician Tim Hayes. “A horse will consistently mirror back the exact feelings, attitudes, and intentions of a human that initiates even the slightest interaction. This can instantly be observed by how the horse responds to the person.”
“Amazingly the fastest and most accurate way to discover who you are and what your presenting to the world is revealed from interacting with a horse,” Hayes continues.
It takes a special type of person and a special type of horse to work in the field of equine-assisted therapy. In a previous Look Into Equestrian Studies blog, we discussed how equestrian students can obtain certification to work with patients participating in equine-assisted therapies as well as learn the skills necessary to specialize in training therapy horses.
Bachelors in equine general studies students who are interested in a career in the rewarding field of equine-assisted therapy can pursue a concentration in equine-assisted therapies. Through taking specialized courses that cover riding and the equine industry, as well as education courses in theory of teaching techniques and kinesiology, these students will be prepared to teach at, train for or manage their own therapy practice.
Equine general studies students and other equestrian majors interested in equine-assisted activities and therapies can take William Woods University course EQU211: Survey of Equine Assisted Therapies, which provides an overview of the equine-assisted therapy movement in the U.S. and around the world. Students in this course will learn about therapeutic riding, equine-assisted psychotherapy, equine-assisted learning, and other topics in equine-assisted therapy, and gain hands-on experience in the field through regular, off-campus labs.
Students interested in exploring this job field have opportunities to visit, volunteer, intern or mentor at an assortment of therapy centers around Missouri serving a variety of populations. PATH International’s website provides a directory of national and local equine therapy centers and opportunities available for those wishing to get involved.