Equine-assisted therapy, which involves interacting with horses, is a widely used therapeutic tool, especially with adolescents. The unique sensitivity of horses, and their oft-cited characteristic of being “nonjudgmental”, helps teens develop the same characteristics towards themselves.
In equine-assisted therapy (EAT), teens are required to be fully present. They need to watch for and respond to horses’ subtle signals. And they need to practice problem-solving tasks, in the moment, in ways that often trigger introspection, self-awareness and insightful disclosures helpful to the therapeutic process. Some studies even show that equine therapy is superior, on some levels, to traditional talk therapy since you don’t even need to speak in order to communicate with the horses.
Data shows that equine therapy improves the following traits in teens:
- Sense of mastery
- Emotion regulation
- Trust in others
- Social, behavioral and emotional functioning
Horses and Mental Health
Equine therapy also decreases negative symptoms in adolescents with depression and anxiety. In one study, participants reported feeling less depressed, and having greater psychological wellbeing, immediately after participating in equine therapy, and six months later!
Horses are also a helpful supplemental treatment to individuals experiencing psychosis. In one study of 90 people in a psychiatric hospital, most of whom had schizophrenia, the participants who received equine therapy had less need for 1:1 clinical observation after the session. They were also significantly less aggressive for several months after treatment.
Trauma and PTSD
Historically, horses have also shown to be immensely helpful with adolescents who have autism or who suffer from trauma. In one study of teens, equine therapy significantly improved symptoms in adolescents who had a history of being physically abused and neglected as children (Schultz 2007). Qualified equine therapists, working together with researchers, administered about 19 equine-assisted sessions to these adolescents and teens. All of the participants showed improvement in their trauma symptoms (which included suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, ADHD, withdrawal, anger and more). The number of sessions given correlated directly (and significantly) with the reduction in these negative symptoms.
There are a number of theories that explain why horses can help reduce PTSD symptoms. In one detailed literature review, O’Haire (2015) shows that adolescents who suffered from trauma often have heightened feelings of unnecessary arousal. Being in the presence of a calm horse reduces anxious arousal, because it is “a comforting reminder that danger is no longer present.” The calmness of the horse helps teens become more mindful of the present moment, mirroring the behavior of the animal.
Additionally, since horses (and other animals, like dogs) have been reported to produce positive feelings of happiness and warmth, teens with PTSD find them comforting and enjoyable to be around. Studies show that being around animals releases oxytocin in humans.
Self-Awareness and Healing
Equine therapy is a valuable experiential activity that is often the highlight for teens in residential treatment.
Through this unique method of interacting with horses, teens can learn a lot about themselves and break down self-imposed barriers towards treatment. Horses help adolescents uncover parts of themselves they may not have had access to in the past—whether due to trauma or a diagnosed mental illness. Through their interactions with these loving and calm animals, teens learn and develop similar soothing, emotion-regulating behaviors.
When searching for a residential treatment center for your teen, ask the staff whether they offer any experiential therapies. If they do offer equine-assisted therapy, know that this is one of the most enjoyable – and therapeutic – activities for teens struggling with mental health issues or behavioral problems.
Wilson et al 2017
Bachi, Terkel, & Teichman, 2012
Yount et al., 2013