Why horses? Why not dogs or goat assisted therapy? Good question! Horses are unique partners in therapy, their physical size sets the stage for a big impact, then their natural instincts & character touches us right to our core. You don’t have to like them or be a “horse person” to appreciate what they contribute to the conversation.
Horses bring so much depth to work on physical goals. As we ride them, their gait activates many of the muscle groups we use when we walk while helping to both stretch & tone multiple muscles at the same time. Psoas strengthening is never this much fun. We also do a lot of large and fine motor work as we get the horses ready & ride.
The ancient Greeks were the first to utilize horseback riding for physical therapy, rehabilitating their soldiers injured in battle. The therapeutic riding industry first developed in Europe, coming to the US in the 70’s. The Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship is an organization that works to promote the industry & ensure high levels of safety & education in its members.
The emotional benefits of working with horses have been attested to since the partnership was developed thousands of years ago. It is just in the last 15 years or so we have started working with horses formally in the mental health & wellness field. Horses’ instincts as a prey animal cut through our best efforts to conceal our feelings. They feel safe when everyone is being congruent – they want what we are feeling to match our actions. In the wild their survival could be dependent on knowing if the predator coming over the hill is on the prowl or is just passing through, before it even crests the hill. This plays out in our arena when a person with anxiety is working with a horse, the connection between the two is difficult until the person allows themselves to be present.
Partnering with horses with emotional health goals can look different depending on our goals. Often we are working with them on the ground, working toward building a connected relationship one horse, but sometimes we have multiple horses or multiple people involved. Sometimes the client is riding to build rhythmic motion into the routine and help them regulate physiologically.
Here at Summit the human team facilitating the sessions changes to meet our clients’ goals. Our Equine Specialist, Allison Wheaton, has training & certification from several organizations that all contribute to her approach in sessions. More information on these perspectives can be found at The Natural Lifemanship Institute, Eagala, Path International, and Eponaquest Worldwide. She often is joined by a licensed therapist or educator that helps with the human component of the session.