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How Does Equine Therapy Help Teen Mental Health?

Equine therapy, which uses the deep and tender connection between humans and animals to promote emotional healing, can create a safe emotional space for young people experiencing mental health issues. Molly Freemantle, LMSW, a therapist and equine specialist at Fulshear Treatment to Transition, a young adult transitional living program that offers equine therapy, said this type of therapy offers “a very nonjudgmental, safe, in-the-moment experiential way to look at relational partners.” She noted, “Horses can teach kids how to get trust, and what it takes to build and have trust, in a relationship.”

Equine therapy and working with equine therapists can also foster:

  • Self-trust.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Assertiveness.
  • Empathy.
  • Trust in others.
  • Impulse control.
  • Emotional regulation.
  • Emotional awareness.
  • Social skills.
  • Assertiveness.
  • Problem-solving skills.
  • Relationship-building skills.
  • Stress relief.

What Does Equine Therapy Treat?

Equine therapy sessions can be used to treat a variety of issues.

Anxiety

An equine-assisted therapy study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that equine therapy is helpful for anxiety. It helps participants learn to be present in the moment or practice mindfulness, which is an important technique for managing anxiety.

The study indicated it is also helpful for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a specific type of anxiety disorder that involves severe anxiety and other symptoms that occur after a traumatic event. Talk therapy is typically not effective for those with PTSD.

Substance abuse disorders

Another condition that can be treated with equine therapy is substance abuse. A study published in Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment that looked at horse-assisted therapy for substance abuse treatment that targeted individuals ages 16-26 found this treatment was particularly effective because it helped participants learn how to cope with challenges. This is especially helpful for those who use substances as a way to cope with negative emotions. Equine therapy also improved self-esteem. Participants felt that they were “doing something useful.” Working with horses gave them a sense of meaning and something positive to look forward to.

Personality disorders

Equine-facilitated psychotherapy is also helpful for those who want to work on relationship building, such as people with personality disorders. For example, young people with borderline personality disorder may have significant turbulence in their personal relationships, while those with paranoid personality disorder may have a hard time trusting another person.

Freemantle said relationship building is an important part of equine therapy, as horses provide nonjudgmental feedback to social interactions. They let people know how they feel about something, while humans don’t always do this. That can be very beneficial for equine therapy participants. The predictability and stability people can expect in working with horses, which comes from the animals’ innate need for consistency and harmony with others in order to survive, can also be helpful.

Freemantle said Fulshear uses equine therapy as a type of mental health treatment to help clients with a variety of other issues, as well, including trauma, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, eating disorders, anger issues, and more.

If you’re interested in equine therapy for your teen, Freemantle said to keep two guidelines in mind:

  • Participants should be stable enough to work with animals. So, they should not have symptoms that would present a danger to themselves in working with the horse, such as having hallucinations.
  • This therapy should be used in combination with other treatments such as relational/attachment therapy, family therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), trauma- focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT), and medication management. In fact, it’s very common to see the receptiveness nurtured through horse therapy help patients feel more comfortable and open during other types of treatment.

What Does Horse Therapy Entail?

A therapeutic experience with horses can be tailored based on a person’s comfort level and horsemanship. Equine therapeutic interventions are used frequently with teens because of the natural affinity and enthusiasm that many teens hold toward animals. Equine-assisted psychotherapy can be done privately and in groups.

Most experiences involve petting, grooming, feeding, and leading a horse, as well as therapeutic riding, under a mental health professional’s supervision. Freemantle said many find that simply being in the presence of a horse creates a sense of well-being, peace, and openness. They feel they can interact with this animal without fear of judgment because horses are honest in their interactions with and responses to others and their environment. This creates a space for being comfortable discussing vulnerable topics tied to emotions, traumas, painful experiences, and life transitions.

Equine-assisted psychotherapy usually involves an introduction that builds slowly over time until human and horse feel entirely at ease together. The process of going from horse novice to horse expert is essential for building feelings of self-efficacy and patience.

The reason why horse therapy is so beneficial when compared to other therapeutic experiences is that horses are observational, sensitive animals. Horses are known to mirror behaviors and emotions. In a study published in Current Biology, researchers confirmed that horses remembered emotions tied to specific people and used those memories to modify their interactions with those people.

Fremantle said the mirroring actions of horses can be beneficial for helping people to stay present and self-aware during interactions. This can be crucial for feeling safe, connected, and understood for those who are struggling to make connections with others in their lives.

What Are the Benefits of Horse Therapy?

Multiple studies published throughout the years showcase how equine-assisted interventions create positive outcomes.

Behavioral improvements

According to a Psychology Today article, based on research and observational findings, experts believe equine-assisted therapy may result in behavioral benefits for teens including improved impulse regulation. “The need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively promotes the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation,” the article stated.

Increased perception of social support

In a study published in the International Journal of Adolescence and Youth examining the results of a four-month intervention with horses among adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15, horse therapy participants reported significant increases in perceived social support following the experience.

Treatment of Trauma

Freemantle said Fulshear uses equine therapy to treat trauma. “In working with horses, the client learns to move out of that survival mode, feel their feelings and emotions, and engage with people.”

Healing

A scientific analysis published in Nursing Open looking at the concept of horses as healers found that benefits of equine-assisted therapy programs and interventions included improved balance, well‐being, quality of life, trust, self‐efficacy, self‐esteem, pleasure, and a sense of accomplishment.

Introducing Horse Therapy to Your Teen

If you feel that horse therapy is something your teen could benefit from, broaching the topic is as simple as asking if this is something that appeals to them. Many teens who are not receptive to other options for managing behaviors or mental health concerns are more receptive to equine-assisted therapy.

While Freemantle said horse therapy can initially be a little anxiety-provoking for some clients because of the emotional vulnerability involved, she recommended that clients and parents be open to the process of this type of therapy program. She said, “It will challenge you in the moment, but use that information as feedback.”

How To Find an Equine Therapy Program

To find a quality program, look for one that has therapists certified in the Eagala program, like Freemantle. These therapists have completed more than 6,000 hours (approximately three years of full-time work) of hands-on experience with horses. Additionally, they have 100 hours of continuing education in the field.

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Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling visit www.embarkbh.com.