Horses have many gifts to give simply by being in our lives — but horses also have documented healing powers in therapeutic applications as well. Devin Morrissey shares the details.
As the majestic, noble creatures they are, horses have the ability to give us many gifts by simply being in our lives — from being our best friends to providing us with peace and comfort at the end of a long day, and the list doesn’t stop with companionship and love.
Horses also have an incredible healing power, and they help countless people everyday through equine therapy. Equine therapy is emotional healing encouraged by interaction with horses. This helps people with various needs, ranging from anxiety and depression therapy to therapy for people on the autistic spectrum.
Body Language and Response
Of course, all horse lovers know what an incredible healing power horses have with humans; it doesn’t take long to experience it. Those who spend a lot of time around horses will not be surprised to hear that not only is this type of healing spiritual, but scientific as well.
A study of human and horse heart rates showed that spending time with a horse can lead to heart rates syncing up, which can slow down the heart rate of someone who is feeling anxious and lead them to feel calm. Since heart rate is an involuntary stress response, the study was able to conclude that horse assisted therapy has positive results, particularly for at-risk youths.
Similarly, horses have been found to have the ability to read human body language. One study by the University of Essex found that they can tell the difference between submissive and dominant stances even with people they are not familiar with.
Hypervigilance and Herd Dynamics
Horses are able to achieve this due to their social skills as herd animals. As reported by the Huffington Post, horses are hypervigilant creatures:
“[It] allows horses to detect the slightest sound, smell, or movement, any of which might indicate the presence of a life-threatening predator. Their ability to read with flawless accuracy not just the behavior of others but their silent intentions is what gives the horse the psychological mirroring expertise of the most gifted human therapist.”
Since this hypervigilance is also commonly observed in those with PTSD, it makes horses the perfect therapy animal for helping them.
As herd animals, horses acquire particular social qualities that further qualify them to be therapeutic to humans:
“To promote social harmony and keep the herd together, horses possess a number of evolutionary hardwired qualities. These include: being accepting, tolerant, kind, respectful, honest, fair, nonjudgmental, compassionate, and forgiving. All of these innate equine qualities are also utilized when a horse interacts with a human.”
Another study, The Efficacy of equine therapy: Mounting evidence, takes a look at how horses help patients get through therapy. The study found that in addition to the skills already mentioned, horses help with self acceptance, impulse modulation, and creative freedom. The study cites the following experience of one patient:
“I was so tense and frightened. Nobody knew my fear, so I had no support. [One day] we rode a ways and … came to a large hill… I stopped Cecil, my horse, and said ‘I can’t do this!’ But [the Equine Staff] encouraged me and said, ‘You can do it! We’ll be here! It’s OK, Cecil has done this many times. He knows what to do. One of us will go in front of you and one will go behind you.’ Next thing I knew Cecil took off to go up the hill, so [the Equine Staff] followed me up and when we got to the top I felt relieved and proud I’d made it…”
Specialized Equine Therapy
Though the incredible ability for horses to heal allow them to be potential therapy animals for a variety of therapies, there are a few areas where they have proven to be especially helpful. Two of these include helping people in addiction recovery and people diagnosed with autism.
Complementary and Alternative Equine Therapy
Due to their healing qualities, horses are often used in animal-assisted therapy — a form of complementary therapy. According to Wake Forest University, which specializes in counseling, complementary therapy is “enacted by mental health professionals who believe their clients would benefit from more non-traditional treatments in addition to standard medical practices.”
The university also states that animal-assisted therapy is one of the most common and most effective types of complementary therapies available. It has been proven to help reduce anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue in people who use this type of therapy. Horses, along with dogs and cats, are one of the most common types of animals used for animal-assisted therapy.
Horses and Addiction Therapy
Equine therapy is also proven to be effective as part of many specialized therapies, including addiction therapy. People who spend time around horses are familiar with the work and reward of caring for these majestic creatures, but those who haven’t previously had the opportunity have a lot to learn and gain.
As it relates to overcoming addiction, equine therapy is “a holistic approach to substance abuse treatment,” according to addiction recovery experts at A Better Today. They also list the following as benefits of equine therapy:
- Building a sense of self-worth
- Improving communication
- Building trust and self-efficiency with therapist or self
- Developing socialization skills and decreasing isolating behaviors
- Learning to respect and establish limits or boundaries
Of course, some patients are intimidated by the size of horses, so not all of them will choose to ride them. Therapy services put safety first and allow patients to pet, brush, and feed the horses, at the same time giving them a chance to be outside in the fresh air.
Horses and Autism
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological and psychological disorder that affects social, physical, and communicative abilities. As the name implies, ASD exists on a wide spectrum, and those who have it can be high functioning, low functioning, or anywhere in between.
Though treatments vary due to the needs of the patient, counseling is often recommended as a treatment for ASD, as it can help with social abilities. The earlier treatment is started, the more it can help with possible behavioral issues. Animal-assisted therapy can be beneficial for those with ASD, as bonding and interacting with animals can help with relationship-building skills and other social abilities. Horses are the perfect animal to help, as they are gentle and responsive creatures who can convey love to humans.
Without a doubt, spending time with horses has an incredible healing power that can help just about anyone. Whether it takes form in spending a day roaming the hills and fields or passing a few hours grooming and feeding in the stables, horse and human share an amazing bond.
Devin Morrissey dreams of writing abroad, but he’s settling for writing on the road. You can find him on Twitter or across the Pacific Northwest, but tweeting him is probably easier.