Equine Assisted Therapy: An Unconventional Treatment

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Equine assisted therapy (EAT) encompasses a range of treatments that includes activities with horses and other equines to promote physical, occupational, and emotional growth in persons with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Autism, cerebral palsy, dementia, depression, developmental delay, genetic syndromes (such as Down’s syndrome), traumatic brain injuries, abuse issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug and alcohol addiction, and other mental health problems.
Such therapy is not designed to replace more commonly used therapies.
Equine-assisted therapy is not the same as adaptive sports activities involving horsemanship. Riders with disabilities have demonstrated accomplishments in national and international Para-equestrian competitions.


An overall term that encompasses all forms of equine therapy is Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT). Various therapies that involve interactions with horses and other equines are used for individuals with and without special needs, including those with physical, cognitive and emotional issues. Within that framework, the more common therapies and terminology used to describe them are:
• Therapeutic horseback riding uses a therapeutic team, usually including a certified therapeutic riding instructor, two or more volunteers, and a horse, to help an individual ride a horse and work with it on the ground.
• Hippotherapy usually involves an occupational therapist, a physiotherapist, or a speech and language therapist working with a client and a horse. Different movements of the horse present challenges to the rider to promote different postural responses of the rider. In essence, the horse influences the rider rather than the rider controlling the horse. The word “Hippotherapy” is also used in some contexts to refer to a broader realm of equine therapies.
• Equine-assisted learning is described as an “experiential learning approach that promotes the development of life skills … through equine-assisted activities.”
• Equine-assisted psychotherapy does not necessarily involve riding, but may include grooming, feeding and ground exercises. Mental health professionals work with one or more clients and one or more horses in an experiential manner to help the clients learn about themselves and others, while processing or discussing the client’s feelings, behaviours, and patterns The goal is to help the client in social, emotional, cognitive, or behavioural ways. Other terms for equine psychotherapy include Equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP), equine-assisted therapy (EAT), Equine Facilitated Wellness (EFW), Equine Facilitated Counselling (EFC) and Equine Facilitated Mental Health (EFMH).
• Interactive vaulting involves vaulting activities in a therapeutic milieu.
• Therapeutic carriage driving involves controlling a horse while driving from a carriage seat or from a wheelchair in a carriage modified to accommodate the wheelchair.
• Equine-Assisted Activities (EAA) incorporates all of the above activities plus horse grooming, and stable management, shows, parades, demonstrations, and the like.


Typical Impairments Addressed by Equine/Horse-Assisted Therapy

Impairments that may be modified with equine therapy include:
 Abnormal tone
 Impaired balance responses
 Impaired coordination
 Impaired communication
 Impaired cognitive function
 Impaired sensory processing function
 Postural asymmetry
 Poor postural control
 Decreased mobility


How an Autistic Child Can Benefit from Equine Therapyo

Horses are used by physical, speech, and occupational therapists to reach their patients on a personal level through “hippotherapy.” Children with autism also benefit from equine therapy due to the motor, emotional, and sensory sensations that come with riding a horse.

Creating the Emotional Bond
Autistic children have difficulty bonding emotionally to others. As the parent of an autistic child, you know that it is hard for your child to make eye contact, communicate what he is feeling, and express himself to those he cares about. Rather than verbal communication, autistic children experience physical communication with the horses. They brush them, hug them, and pat them. By learning to care for the horse, they associate the care they provide with feelings and an emotional bridge is constructed. This bond can lead to social and communication skill production with other people in his life as well.

Cognitive and Language Skills Development
Autistic children often have difficulty comprehending normal directions. By engaging in equine therapy, your child follows directions through a fun activity that makes taking direction easier to grasp and remember. He will also give the horse direction, which provides him with more opportunities to communicate. Your child is naturally motivated to move; thus, he is excited and motivated to communicate. During his therapy his cognitive concepts will naturally improve. For example, equine therapists have children throw coloured balls into baskets while riding, touch their eyes, mouth, and ears during a song, and identify scenes—all incorporated during riding.

Sensory Benefits
Balance and spatial orientation are experienced through the vestibular sense organs. These are located inside the inner ear and are stimulated through direction change, incline, and speed. Riding a horse helps liven these sensory preceptors, which helps make therapy exciting and motivates your child to continue to be engaged.

Horses provide low-stress social interaction.
For patients who struggle with social interactions, working with a horse gives them much-needed practice. When done correctly, it can be easier to create a healthy, successful working relationship with a horse, than it is with most people.
In doing so, a person can also develop or improve their responsibility, self-confidence and self-respect. They may also learn how to bring trust to relationships by learning to trust the horse during therapy. After a patient with emotional/social issues practices on a horse, they get help translating their success into interacting with people.

Physical exercise through riding and caring for horses
Working with a horse provides exercise for individuals who need help developing fine motor skills (in the small muscles of the fingers, toes, wrists, etc.) and gross motor skills (large muscles in the legs, arms and torso). Youngsters with different forms of cerebral palsy and autism can benefit from horse riding as it helps them develop strength, balance and muscle control.

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