A parent may hear "equine therapy" and think that his or her child is simply going learn how to ride a horse. But there's much more to it than that.
Equine therapy has been used for years as part of behavioral treatments for troubled and at-risk adolescents. But more recently, it's also been used to help young people who are struggling with eating disorders.
On its most basic, non-scientific level, equine therapy offers the kind of unconditional acceptance that many eating disorder sufferers long for. Horses don't make judgments based on appearance, social or economic status. If you're kind and respectful, they're kind and loving in return. Receiving this kind of unconditional acceptance is often the first powerful step in recovery. As the patient and therapist work with the horse together, the patient is able to process the unconditional acceptance she's receiving from the horse, and begin learning how to unconditionally accept herself.
A horse is also a very prideful animal. Not prideful as in arrogant, but confident. Regardless of the animal's age or appearance, he holds his head high and walks proudly. This can make a lasting impression on a girl who has body image issues. She can learn, by observing the horse, to be proud of who she and what she looks like, regardless of whether she fits the current, trendy, fashion-driven definition of "beautiful". In addition, while most patients work consistently with one horse, they still interact with many. Some of the horses are much older than others. As the patient interacts with, and learns to value and love the older horses as much as she does the younger horses, she can begin correcting her own internal dialogue that tells her she must always look thin and youthful in order to be valued and loved.
Equine Assisted Therapy usually involves caring for the horse. The patient and therapist work together with a horse professional to groom, exercise, and feed the animal. A healthy diet is an essential component of keeping a horse at his optimum performance level, and the same is true of humans. This can be an excellent, indirect and non-threatening way to get a patient with an eating disorder to begin re-learning the importance of eating well. Conversations about healthy exercise and diet for the horse can spark beneficial conversations about the same needs in humans.
Because horses are very sensitive to non-verbal cues, they tend to mirror the moods and attitudes we convey with our body language. This can help a patient become aware of negative body language, and begin discussing the feelings and their causes with his or her therapist.
Most equine assisted therapy treatment programs begin with an assessment of the patient, who is then paired with an appropriate horse. Typically, a patient is paired with the same horse for the duration of the treatment program, as it allows the patient and horse to truly bond. Weekly or twice-weekly sessions range from 30 to 90 minutes and include grooming, feeding, exercising and simply riding the horse for fun. The therapist is present during all of the sessions, and though there is a horse professional present, he or she often keeps a respectful distance so the patient and therapist can talk.
Many equine therapy patients comment about the increased trust and confidence they gained through their programs. Learning to work with and control such an independent, powerful creature as a horse often causes self-confidence to skyrocket. Many patients discover they can do things they never thought possible, which gives them a renewed sense of hope about recovering from their eating disorders.