How Do Horses Fit in as Therapy Animals?
Horses may seem intimidating because of their size, but they are actually rather gentle and nervous creatures. Equine-assisted psychotherapist, Holly Hansen, mentions “horses, while they’re very large animals, are very vulnerable”. People who take part in equine therapy can sometimes relate to the horses; horses are prey animals so they are hypervigilant of their surroundings and constantly watching out for danger. Trauma victims can relate to this because they may also feel vulnerable in similar situations. Horses seem to be able to make special connections with humans: “as the humans talk about setting limits and learning social skills, the horses seem to be listening” (Esposito). Not only can horses connect with humans in a mental sense, but they can also improve social skills and cognitive skills for the person riding them. Horses may not be a therapy pet that you can have in your home or take on an airplane, but they can still be incredibly helpful to humans in many different ways. At Milestones, we have two different groups of riders: our therapeutic riders (children with disabilities) and our Silver Saddles riders (people over the age of fifty.)
Equine Therapy for our Therapeutic Riders
For the children with disabilities at Milestones, the horses can help with emotional bonding, cognitive skills, language skills, and sensory skills. Some children with disabilities “have difficulty bonding emotionally” (ASDF) but with horses they are able to create bonds without a lot of verbal communication. The children connect and bond with the horses by brushing, hugging, petting, and of course, riding them. At Milestones, some of our horses have disabilities which makes it easier for the therapeutic riders to connect with them.
Along with emotional bonding issues, these children can also have trouble “comprehending normal directions” (ASDF). The horses can help improve directional comprehension by allowing the child to direct them and be in control of where they go and how they move. By having the child be in control of the horse’s movements, it gives them a better sense of direction and feel that they are in control of where they are going.
Horses can even help improve a child’s language skills. Our horses here at Milestones are trained to react to certain phrases such as “walk on” followed by their name; the children are able to work on their language skills by repeating these common phrases and having the horse react to them. When the horse does what the child is telling it to do, this acts as a “reward” for the child which helps them remember a certain phrase and what it means. The child can then go on to understand and use that same system to practice their language skills in different scenarios.
Children with disabilities sometimes have sensory challenges as well, but equine therapy can help strengthen their senses. Riding a horse can help strengthen a child’s senses through “direction change, incline, and speed” (ASDF); equine therapy makes this a fun and exciting experience for the child. At Milestones, children engage with the horse in different activities such as guiding the horse through cones or having the horse kick a soccer ball around to improve sensory and cognitive skills.
Being able to have various types of contact with the horse allows the child to improve their cognitive skills and emotional bonding skills; with most other therapy animals, such as a dog, a person is only able to connect with them in a few ways, but with a horse people are able to engage in multiple activities with them.
Equine Therapy for our Silver Saddles Riders
Our riders over fifty are more focused on improving flexibility and balance. Riding a “slowly advancing horse mimics the usual walking gait of a human being” (ET) which helps our riders feel comfortable and more stable. At Milestones, our Silver Saddles riders engage in activities such as stretching, directional control, flexibility, and posture exercises all while on a horse. Being on a horse “allows the elderly to develop flexibility [and] postural strength” (ET). Instead of simply doing stretching exercises on their feet, the riders do these exercises on horses which allows them to improve their balance and flexibility as well because they have to make sure they don’t fall off the horse.
Equine therapy also helps to keep our Silver Saddles riders socially involved and getting outside for a while once a week; many of the riders mentioned that if they did not have Milestones, they might not get out as much. Horseback riding can help “get rid of depression and anxiety” (ET) in riders. The riders are able to socialize with each other and also interact with the horses by grooming them, saddling them up, and riding them. Our riders truly connect with the horses and even say they all have their own individual personalities; most of the riders say that their favorite horse is the one they usually ride which makes sense. Overall, our Silver Saddles riders can feel a great sense of accomplishment and pride in what they are doing while strengthening their physical skills and balance.
It’s Clear that Horses are Wonderful Therapy Animals
Equine therapy can be a great way for people of all ages to make strides in physical, cognitive, emotional, and social skills. Without horses, this type of therapy would not be available to the public. Horses are able to make special emotional connections with humans while also helping them improve a variety of skills. At Milestones, we take pride in our riders, our horses, and everything they accomplish through each session.
Anna Giorgi. “Pet Therapy.” Health Line, 4 May 2016, www.healthline.com/health/pet-therapy.
“Equine Therapy for the Elderly.” Equestrian Therapy, www.equestriantherapy.com/equine-therapy-elderly/.
“How Your Autistic Child Can Benefit from Equine Therapy.” My ASDF, myasdf.org/site/media-center/articles/how-your-autistic-child-can-benefit-from-equine-therapy/.
Lisa Esposito. “Equine Therapy: How Horses Help Humans Heal.” Health.usnews, 2 Sept. 2016, health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2016-09-02/equine-therapy-how-horses-help-humans-heal.