The therapeutic options available to people with some condition or disability are increasing. One approach that can help patients improve their quality of life is equine assisted therapy.
These options aren’t new, but they weigh much more heavily now than they used to. With these types of alternative therapies, patients can get to know themselves better and improve their personal development and quality of life.
Horses are therefore central to therapy with horses. Studies show that equine assisted therapy, or EAT (equine assisted therapy), can be good for people on the autism spectrum, patients with cerebral palsy, and other conditions or illnesses.
Are you interested in finding out more? For example, who invented this approach? For who is it? Are there different methods within the therapy? Then keep reading to find out!
What is Equine Assisted Therapy?
EAT, also called equine therapy or equestrian therapy, is a great alternative for people with some neurological disability or condition, such as autism.
The aim is to assist the patient in their cognitive, physical, emotional, social and/or occupational development through a series of exercises, games and activities with horses. In a more general sense, it can improve patients’ well-being and quality of life.
For example, during a therapy session, the patient can ride, brush, pet and feed the horse. They can also play with the horse or do other activities while sitting on the horse.
Each patient, depending on their physical and psychological characteristics, receives their own unique treatment that allows them to get the most out of their interaction with the horse.
The practice of equine therapy dates back to the ancient Greeks, who recommended horse riding to prevent and heal aches and pains of the mind and body.
However, the formal practice of equine assisted therapy began in Mexico in 1969. A trainer at Mexico’s Olympic Athletic Center, Rogelio Hernandez Huerta, is credited as the original creator.
That same year, the first specialized equine therapy center was established, as well as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). NARHA’s mission is to coordinate and officially recognize centers and individuals offering equine therapy.
Who is this equine therapy for?
As we mentioned above, equine therapy is great for people with physical or mental disabilities. It can also be good for other types of problems which we will mention below. EAT is suitable for children and adults. Health professionals most often recommend equine therapy to people with the following conditions:
- Disabilities (physical, mental or sensory).
- Neurodevelopmental disorders (e.g. autism).
- Social adjustment problems.
- Other types of diseases.
This therapy can be especially helpful for anyone with autism spectrum disorder, patients with cerebral palsy or Rett syndrome, patients with spinal cord and/or brain injuries, multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia, and so on. In any case, the therapist makes the necessary adjustments to the activities depending on the therapeutic goals.
The benefits of this therapy
The psychological and physical benefits of equine therapy are supported by research. The main psychological and emotional benefits include the following:
- Self-esteem improves.
- Better emotional self-control.
- Improves self-confidence.
- Stimulates memory and attention.
- Promotes respect for nature and animals.
Some of the physical benefits of equine therapy include improved muscle development and balance, strength, muscle tone, motor skills, coordination, endurance, and so on.
Therapy with horses and autism
As we’ve mentioned several times, equine assisted therapy is great for children with autism. A study conducted by Perez et al. in 2008 found that equine therapy provides four types of stimulation in young patients: vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and motor.
Another study by De La Prieta (2017) found that heat and vibrations given off by the horse, as well as their three-dimensional movements, can stimulate nervous structures, which is good for the patient’s development.
Yet another study, conducted by Delgado and Sanchez (2015) and published in Mediciego, found that children with autism can develop an emotional bond with horses. Riding it also gives them a sense of security that positively affects their self-esteem.
Types of therapy with horses
Within equine assisted therapy there are different disciplines. Here are some of the most famous:
- Therapeutic horseback riding. This means that exercises are done while the patient is sitting on the horse. It can improve balance and coordination.
- Hippotherapy. In this type of therapy, the patient does physiotherapy exercises with and on the horse. The goal is to use the heat transferred by the horse and the rhythmic and three-dimensional movements to help the patient.
- Equine-assisted learning (EAL). This is very popular and consists of adapting the patient to the horse and everything involved in caring for a horse. Among other things, it can increase motivation, stimulate emotional expression and improve concentration.
- Adaptive riding. For people with various functional disorders who are already riding horses. The goal is to adapt the sport to the needs of the patient.
In short, equine assisted therapy is a therapeutic tool with undeniable benefits. It is a great alternative therapy for children with autism and other pathologies or conditions.
It is also great for adults as the variety of disciplines makes it suitable for people with all kinds of problems. The person guiding the patient during his therapy should always be a qualified and accredited professional. In most cases this is a specialized physiotherapist.