Equine Assisted Therapy at Casey Cardinia Psychology is based on sound psychological principles and research supports the effectiveness of the modality. Our approach is an experiential, problem-solving model of change to look at perceived limitations, allow behavioural practice and facilitate cognitive restructuring. Focused psychological strategies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) are incorporated into the framework for individual sessions. Incorporating CBT principles into Equine Assisted Therapy sessions provides frequent opportunities for clients to learn about the interrelationship between their thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. This increases awareness of underlying thought distortion and negative behaviour patterns. Principles of mindfulness and emotional awareness and regulation are also incorporated.
A very relaxed Fred with his Farrier Sam
Effectiveness of Equine Assisted Therapy
Various studies have explored the effectiveness of Equine Assisted Therapy and consistently found statistically significant positive changes on clinical outcome measures. A Randomised Controlled Trial found significant reduction in aggressive behaviours in psychiatric patients (Nurenberg, et al., 2013). Australian studies of the Equine Assisted Therapy model have found significant improvements in functioning for adolescents who experienced sexual abuse & trauma (Kemp, et al., 2013); and significant decreases in compassion fatigue and burnout, with increases in compassion satisfaction, emotional awareness and emotional management (Black, 2016). Research has also supported physiological benefits of Equine Assisted Therapies, and demonstrated lower cortisol levels (Pendry, Smith & Roeter, 2014) and increase in oxytocin (Beetz et al., 2012).
Benefits of Equine Assisted Therapy
Research suggests Equine Assisted Therapy may benefit participants in the following domains (Marker 2019):
The first step in Equine Assisted Therapy is learning to trust the horse, the therapist, and yourself. This is a profound step towards growth in interpersonal relationships and healing. Learning to trust an animal such as a horse is very powerful in the development and restoration of trust for those whose ability to trust has been compromised by difficult life experiences.
Research on human-animal interactions indicates that contact with animals and horses significantly reduces physiological anxiety levels. With the support of an expert therapist and a trained therapy horse whose genuineness and affection help allay these fears, participants are empowered to embrace therapy to diminish anxiety.
Depression is frequently associated with feeling rejected, different, left out. Depression is an intrinsically isolating experience. The horse’s unconditional acceptance non-verbally encourages participants back into the camaraderie of life to engage in positive social interactions that decrease depression and isolation.
Equine Assisted Therapy integrates mindfulness at almost every step as the participant learns to be present, in the moment, calm, centered, focused, and fully engaged. Horses are very sensitive and pick up on others’ emotions quickly, and accurately reflect these feelings in mirroring ways to the participant. With mindfulness, the participant is able to learn new, positive ways of being, which has a significant impact on cognition, feelings, and behaviours associated with depression, anxiety, trauma, obsessions, impulsivity, emotional regulation, and other mental health issues.
Participant’s confidence is enhanced as they challenge themselves to learn and master new skills. They improve their ability to tackle new projects and challenges in a natural, non-competitive, and non-judgmental environment, which leads to improved confidence, self-assurance, and self-esteem.
Participants who struggle with impulse control and emotional regulation can benefit greatly from Equine-Assisted Therapy. The need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively promotes the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Equine-Assisted Therapy is effective in reducing participants irritability, agitation, and impulsivity, and increases cooperation, emotional regulation, capacity for delay, and behavioural control.
Experiencing success with challenging exercises and goal-focused activities in non-verbal ways fosters initiative, problem-solving, and renewed internal feelings of self-efficacy. Experiences of “I did it!” replace feelings of helplessness and lack of motivation.
As the horse and therapist work in close alliance with the participant, a gradual sense of acceptance and feeling “liked” emerges to enhance the participant’s positive self-concept and identity. The participant bonds with the horse to create a positive and healthy relationship that fosters the participants’ identity of self.
Learning to communicate and achieve harmony with a large animal promotes intuition, stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, and patience. Horses’ sensitivity to non-verbal communication assists children and adults to develop greater awareness of their emotions, the non-verbal cues that they may be communicating, and the critical role of non-verbal communication in relationships.
Through Equine Assisted Therapy participants have a unique opportunity to encounter the outdoors from a new perspective. Feelings of joy and connection are often discovered or revived as children experience nature’s beauty in a renewed way. Engaging in therapy in a more natural, peaceful, outdoor environment greatly enhances the benefits of therapy.
Many participants are initially concerned that they will do something embarrassing while learning about and interacting with the horses. Yet participants quickly learn to focus inwardly on their comfort level in their own skin as opposed to making comparisons. Fears of embarrassment in public can thereby be reduced and self-acceptance increased. Participants also learn that progress is a journey, and self-acceptance for every phase of that journey is critical to resilience.
Equine Assisted Therapy supports participants in learning appropriate non-verbal and verbal communication, receiving and understanding positive and negative feedback, reciprocity in relationships, assertiveness, initiative, and engagement. A positive relationship with a horse is often the first, safe step toward practicing the social skills needed to initiate closer relationships with people, learn trust, and engage in social reciprocity.
Working effectively with a large animal can be intimidating and Equine Assisted Therapy provides the foundation for participants to learn how to be more assertive, clear, and directive. Communicating effectively with a horse and engaging in challenging exercises that include the horse assist the participant to demonstrate initiation, assertiveness, and direction; all important skills that enable them to express their needs and feelings more effectively in relationships.
Many participants have experienced prior relationships as controlling, traumatic, conflictual, or untrustworthy. Healing takes place as they discover that the relationship with horses occurs within the context of a healthy, safe, and mutually respectful relationship between themselves and the horse. Participants quickly learn that although physically bigger and more powerful, the horse typically mirrors the participants emotions and operates within the boundaries of this safe and mutually caring relationship.
Many participants with emotional difficulties may be emotionally inhibited, rigid, or despondent, and are likely to have lost some sense of spontaneity. The creativity, spontaneity, and playful aspects of Equine Assisted Therapy and equine activities can help restore spontaneity, creativity, and ability for healthy recreation and play.
By developing a caring and nurturing a relationship with a horse, the participant develops a positive attachment outside of their home and school. Through grooming activities and caring for the horse, participants are able to learn to give, nurture, connect, and put aside the absorbing focus of their struggles, self-defeating thoughts, and/or anxious ruminations. Through Equine Assisted Therapy participants direct their attention and thoughts externally toward safe and caring interactions.