Equine therapy, also known as equine-assisted therapy or EAT, is a powerful component of experiential treatment. Learning to work with animals, horses in particular, provides individuals with the opportunity to learn more about their own feelings and behaviors. The emotional connection between human and horse forms a critical component of an overall treatment plan, as teenagers learn to conquer their fears and regain the ability to trust others. Equine therapy is especially powerful for emotionally troubled young women, who may be resistant to traditional talk therapy modalities.
The Power of Equine Therapy
Scientific research overwhelmingly supports the use of equine-assisted therapy for a variety of purposes. The first record of equine therapy dates to Greece in 600 B.C. This modality has been used for decades in the U.S. for assisting individuals with physical disabilities (hippotherapy) but its efficacy for treating social and emotional challenges is well known in the therapeutic community as well. Therapists have the ability to guide the experience and design a program to address a teen’s specific challenges. For example, a young woman may be challenged to guide a horse through a maze fraught with tasty temptations. Guiding her horse through the course with minimal interruptions forms a powerful analogy for the young woman’s own life and the temptations she may experience along the way.
The Connection between Human and Horse
Horses pose an intriguing paradox. Emotionally perceptive yet substantial in stature, horses respond to and reflect the emotional state of those around them. In a therapeutic setting, a horse will respond to an individual in kind, but without the judgments that she may perceive from another person. Defiant, angry or aggressive adolescents are quickly disarmed by the gentle affection of a horse once they have bonded, which they perceive as genuine and without threat. Cognitively, horses and humans share many behavior patterns, making it easy for the patient to form a bond with these receptive animals. For young women experiencing a lack of engagement or joy in their lives, they quickly begin to look forward to EAT sessions, offering a powerful motivation for personal growth and program participation.
Equine Assisted Therapy Benefits Adolescent and Teen Girls
Throughout their lives, women experience unique challenges related to self-esteem, marginalization and stress responses. For many reasons, adolescent or young women may experience difficulty with trust, rendering them unable to establish meaningful relationships with others. Horses place none of the demands, expectations or pressures that young women may perceive with human interaction. Horse care comes first, so young women can ease into the experience by first participating in feeding or grooming activities, promoting empathy and nurturing behaviors.
At Havenwood Academy, professional therapists use equine therapy in the effective treatment of eating disorders, depression, anger management, trauma and other challenges. Through equine-assisted therapy, young women improve their communication and relationship skills and learn to resolve challenges in productive new ways. For many teenagers, equine therapy opens the first door to healing.