Until recently, much of the research on equine therapy was anecdotal rather than experiential, but that has changed as this exciting branch of therapy has gained traction in the mental health community.
Colleen Dell, Addiction Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan, has done groundbreaking research into using equine therapy to break the cycle of addiction for teenagers who abuse solvents.
The results of her research showed that the improved self-esteem the participants developed helped them to stop abusing the harmful solvents. In addition, she noted fewer incidences of depression, improved relationships with parents and authority figures and better performance in school for participants..
Wanda Whittlesey-Jerome, New Mexico State University assistant professor in the School of Social Work, learned early in life that her relationship with her own horse helped her to improve relationships with her peers.
As an adult professional, she has conducted research on at-risk teenagers to see if equine therapy could help improve their lives. The people in her program have demonstrated stronger positive resiliency scores on tests and they had improved physical and emotional well-being that translated into better academic performance. Her next research project is to study the effects of equine therapy on adult female victims of violence.
Another equine therapy study, conducted by Leigh Shambo, MSW, LMHC, focused on adult women with post-traumatic stress disorder complex, and found significant improvements in depression, anxiety, dissociative scores and in responses to outcome questionnaires. At the start of this research all the participants met the criteria for PTSD and were symptomatic despite undergoing counseling or taking medication.
Results of Equine Therapy Research
Equine therapy research is ongoing, and the results of the research continue to be overwhelmingly positive, whether the research topic is addiction, behavioral problems, learning disabilities, autism or physical issues and disabilities.
As the exciting breakthrough research pours in, more and more licensed therapists are interested in adding equine therapy credentials to their other degrees and licenses.
In fact, several colleges and universities, including Washington University, New Mexico State University and Prescott College, among many others, have added Equine Therapy specializations to their therapist curricula.
To receive a certification in equine therapy as an additional credential to a mental health degree, students are usually required to take courses such as:
• Exploring Equine-Assisted Mental Health
• Group Facilitation in Equine-Assisted Mental Health
• Best Practices for Equine-Assisted Mental Health
• Applied Relational Horsemanship in Equine-Assisted Mental Health
In addition, most college and university based equine therapy programs require an internship or a semester of field work before awarding the credential.
Certifications offered by equine therapy professional organizations require submission of a portfolio of fieldwork as well as completion of the required coursework.
Nearly every equine therapy certification program requires continuing education and re-certification at regular intervals.
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Equine Therapy & Addiction Treatment
Many individuals find that using equine therapy as part of the addiction recovery process is highly beneficial. Equine therapy provides a safe, enjoyable activity that takes their mind off the stress of recovery while helping to build self-reliance and self-esteem. Along with regular sessions with drug counselors and therapists, individuals battling addiction spent time each day with the horse as part of their therapy.
The person in recovery tends to the horse’s needs, exercising, feeding and grooming the horse each day. The program may include learning to ride the horse or saddle the horse as well as tending to its care. Many equine therapy programs do not include riding due to the age of the horses involved, many of whom may have been selected for a placid temperament rather than a sound gait.
Interacting with almost any animal is soothing and relaxing for most people, but this effect is much more pronounced with horses. Caring for the horse gives the person recovering from addiction a new focus that helps to control their thoughts and gives purpose and meaning to their lives.
The regularity of tending to the horse on a daily basis helps to form a new, healthy habit that replaces the former unhealthy behaviors that led to addiction. The recovering person learns to take on responsibility and to maintain a schedule. Forming these sorts of positive habits and behaviors is a key part of re-entry into normal life.
In addition, quietly performing these tasks gives the person time to reflect on life and their personal problems and demons. This quiet contemplation helps them to come to grips and resolve the issues that may have led them to engage in unsafe or addictive behaviors. As the individual makes peace with themselves, their past behaviors and their relationships, they can start to plan and look forward to a healthier future.
Equine therapy helps people struggling with addiction to develop positive feelings of self-worth. As they learn and master new tasks and perform them responsibly and reliably, they come to realize that they can use these same skills in their day-to-day life after recovery.
Furthermore, equine therapy helps people to realize the negative consequences of their erratic, violent or aggressive behaviors.
The horse intuitively senses the person’s mood and reflects it back to them in nervousness, fear or recalcitrance. Acting in ways that help the horse to remain calm helps the person to learn to control their behavior better and to find ways to make their needs known without yelling or threatening.
This new understanding helps them to be more successful in all areas of their life, including improved relationships with friends and family and a better performance at work or in school.
Emotional Therapy Benefits
Another significant positive emotion that equine therapy fosters in patients is the ability to trust. Patients learn to trust in their horse to respond calmly and reliably to their actions, but more importantly, they learn to trust in themselves. They grow to understand that they can cope with responsibility and that they can be trusted with the care of another living being.
Caring for a horse helps the patient with learning to trust in a higher power and to ask for help when necessary.
This symbiotic relationship between person and horse lowers the patient’s stress level, soothes the spirit and helps to lessen the severity of any lingering withdrawal symptoms.
In addition to these proven physical benefits, equine therapy helps build many positive character traits such as self-confidence, self-reliance, patience, responsibility and trust. These positive characteristics help the patient recover more easily from addition and to lead a productive and fulfilling life after recovery.