Getting a Real Lift from Horses - Depression and Horse Therapy

By Kimberly Poppiti


Can horses help humans to recover from, avoid, or overcome depression? Experts say, “Yes”!

 

The concept of horse therapy is familiar to "horse people" all over the world. Anyone who spends time at the barn will be familiar with sentiments such as, "my horse is my best therapist," and "I don't need a psychiatrist, I have a horse.” Although these comments are usually made half in jest, it now appears that there is some verifiable scientific truth to these old maxims. Can horses, in some way, help humans to recover from, avoid, or overcome depression? Experts, supported by the evidence of successful therapeutic practice, say, “Yes”.

There are various mental health therapies available now that depend on the horse as an integral part of the therapeutic process. These “horse therapies” are known by a variety of names, but are best collectively known as equine assisted therapies, or EAT for short, and are a sub-division of animal assisted therapy (AAT).[1] EAT utilizes a horse, a therapist, and a horse professional to treat depression related ailments. While until recently there had only been anecdotal evidence that these programs actually helped people, the amount and quality of objectively verifiable evidence has now become substantial and continues to grow.

Horses have been used since classical times for physical therapy. Hippotherapy is a term that refers to the use of a horse in human therapy, literally meaning, “therapy with the help of a horse.”[2] In modern usage, the term hippotherapy refers specifically to the therapeutic use of horseback riding, the goal of which is to loosen up, strengthen, and/or relax the human body. More recently, the medical community has recognized what horse lovers have known for millennia, that the horse can be used in a similar manner to help heal the mind, most notably, to help overcome depression and related ailments.

Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that some 18.8 million adults (about 10% of Americans) suffer from some form of depressive illness in any one year.[3] Since even relatively mild cases of depression can significantly detract from a person’s quality of life, timely and effective diagnosis followed by effective treatment is vital. Although everyone is different and depression can take many forms, the most common markers of depression include: withdrawal from friends and family; loss of interest in favorite activities; feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness; changes in eating or sleeping habits; and suicidal thoughts or actions. Depression can affect anyone, but women are about twice as likely to suffer from depression as men, and children and the elderly are also at elevated risk.[4]

The cause of a particular person’s depression is often of uncertain origin; it may result from an imbalance in brain chemicals, from biological factors, from life circumstances, or from a combination of factors. Traditional means of treating depression often include various types of medication. Many people would rather avoid this if possible (especially because the medications have numerous and often unpredictable side effects) and would seek a less invasive path to wellness if they knew of one. An increasingly popular alternative avenue is provided by the range of treatments available through EAT.

EAT is an effective treatment for depression that can be incorporated into an existing or larger treatment program and can also be pursued as an individual treatment option. In EAT, horses are employed in a variety of creative ways to help a therapist diagnose and treat depressed patients. The specific goals and desired outcomes of EAT (and those which facilitate a person’s ability to cope with and perhaps even overcome depression and related disorders) include: improved and increased self-confidence, improved problem solving skills, better organizational skills, and an enhanced ability to think and act creatively and cooperatively. As a non-invasive, activity-based, drug-free therapy, EAT can be an attractive and effective remedy for many depressed people. It provides the freedom for patients and therapists to work at their own pace while avoiding the side effects of drug therapy. As such, it is a fitting therapy for people who have existing addictions or a history of substance abuse. Also, as EAT provides a means of understanding and working through problems, it also aids in the development of creative thinking and problem-solving skills. These qualities create and nurture the development of a sense of personal responsibility, which in turn enhances feelings of self-worth and self confidence.

EAT is unique as a therapy in its requirement for significant present-moment attention and focus. Working with anything as large as a horse, especially if it has a mind of its own, always has its dangers. With horses, who are naturally very observant of their surroundings and can be highly reactive, calm and tranquility can change in an instant to chaos and danger, and it therefore requires patients (and therapists) to be “in the moment” at all times. This helps develop the ability to focus attention. This skill, developed through the need for a person to “pay attention” while working with horses, can also be particularly helpful in treating depression as it shifts the person’s focus from internal depressive thoughts to relevant external concerns.

Horses are also highly sensitive and keenly attuned to the attitudes and behaviors of their human companions. They notice and respond to not only verbal commands, but also to non-verbal cues such as gesture and body language, even when these cues are unintentional. This equine sensitivity requires EAT patients to develop keen self-awareness and effective interactive communication skills in order to successfully deal with the horse. These are skills that can also help them to successfully deal with depression.

Also, because of the horse’s large size, human beings working with horses need to find ways to motivate or even convince horses to work with them; it is a relationship that cannot be forced. Even the simplest of tasks, such as lifting up a horse’s hoof for the first time (the example of EAT used in the Sandra Bullock movie “28 Days”) takes creative thinking and out-of-the-box problem solving skills. The same is true of catching, haltering, lunging, riding, or leading a horse, or of engaging in any number of other seemingly simple activities with a horse. These are examples of various potential “enactment exercises” that can be used in EAT. In each “exercise,” a person is given a task to carry out with the horse while the therapist observes. In this way, a therapist can infer much about how that person interacts with others and even how that person thinks. In addition to providing important information to the therapist, these exercises enable the patient to develop problem solving skills such as those of careful observation and listening, patient diligence, and an understanding of the multifaceted nature of skill acquisition. By working with the horse, the person learns how to resolve problems creatively, peacefully, and effectively, which in turn helps them cope more effectively with their depression.

Another unique attribute of EAT lies in the unfailingly honest reactions of horses. When a human patient interacts with a horse, the horse reacts in a natural and honest way. This allows the patients to get an honest idea about how people may view (and react to) them as well, providing important insights into their own behavior, which can then be adjusted.

Another reason why EAT works, to put it in its simplest terms, is because working with horses is fun! While this may sound irrelevant or seem to be beside the point when the discussion is about the therapeutic benefits of EAT, it is in fact a vital component of much of EAT. This is primarily because working with a horse can make a person feel good and this in itself can be powerful medicine. Secondarily, since EAT is an active, enjoyable and challenging therapy, it has the benefit of capturing a patient’s attention and holding it as long as necessary for the therapy to succeed.

Beyond all the benefits of including a “real” horse in EAT, horses can also be utilized in a more abstract way and are valuable for their inherent symbolic connotations and as vehicles for metaphor. By this I mean that the horse can provide both therapist and patient with a convenient “someone” to project onto and/or to identify with. This is especially useful when working with children because they readily identify with and relate to a horse as an “equal” or peer, and doing so makes it easy for them to experience and express empathetic feelings for the horse and even to view the world or a particular situation from the horse’s point of view. In this way, the horse functions as a means by which the patient can distance him or herself from the trauma of a particular situation. This distance allows them to view and discuss the situation and their feelings about it objectively.

In all of the ways described above, the horse can aid in the process of recovering from depression. In short, the therapist employing EAT has a wide variety of treatment options to choose from and is consequently more likely to discover and utilize the most effective therapy or combination of therapies for each patient.

Once a person decides to give EAT a try, the question of how and where to do so arises. Since a growing number of mental health practitioners and organizations utilize EAT for the treatment of depression, it is important to carefully evaluate the qualifications of the principals involved. Some specific things to consider are: the suitability and credentials of the therapist, the experience, reputation and methods of the horse professional (if one is present), and the horse itself. Most importantly, therapists should be certified, and horse professionals should have not only experience with horses, but also specific training in the field of EAT.

If you are interested in learning more about how horses can help people of all ages manage and even overcome depression, consider consulting a mental health professional or the organizations listed below.

For more information:

North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, Inc. (NARHA)
PO Box 33150
Denver , Colorado 80233
800-369-RIDE (7433)
NARHA@NARHA.ORG

 

Delta Society
875 124th Ave NE, Ste 101
Bellevue , WA 98005
425-226-7357 (8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. PST, Monday - Friday)
425-235-1076 fax
info@deltasociety.org

 

Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA)
PO Box 993
Santaquin , UT 84655
877-858-4600 toll free (in US)
801-667-2191
801-667-2192 fax
equine@eagala.org

 

About the author:

Kimberly Poppiti has been riding, enjoying, and studying horses for over thirty years. In the 1980’s, she competed in the Medal, Maclay and USET regionals and finals; now she rides mainly for fun and also enjoys studying the various connections between horses and people. She has a PhD from New York University and teaches at Dowling College where she is Chair of the Drama and Dance Departments.

1 The North American Riding for the Handicapped Association also uses the more specific term Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy and defines this as, “a form of experiential psychotherapy that includes equine(s). It may include, but is not limited to, a number of mutually beneficial equine activities such as handling, grooming, lunging, riding, driving, and vaulting. Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy is a treatment approach within the classification of Equine Assisted Therapy that provides the client with opportunities to enhance self-awareness and re-pattern maladaptive behaviors, feelings and attitudes.” (“Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) Fact Sheet” www.narha.org/SecEFMHA/FactSheet.asp, accessed April 21, 2005)

2 www.americanhippotherapyassociation.org/aha_hpot.htm#terms, accessed 4/25/05 14:31) More information on the uses of the horse in therapy, including a history of this phenomenon beginning in the fifth century BCE, can be obtained from the American Hippotherapy Association at PO Box 4053, Scottsdale, Arizona 85261.

3 www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depression.cfm, accessed 4/06/05 20:00)

4 Ibid.

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