Updated: Mar 22
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is a form of therapy that involves the use of horses to help people with various mental health issues. EAP has been found to be particularly effective for children with ADHD, anxiety, and depression.
In June of 2022, the CDC reported that ADHD, anxiety, depression, and behavior problems are the most diagnosed mental disorders in children aged 3-17 years. Approximately 6.0 million children are estimated to have ADHD, 5.8 million have anxiety, 5.5 million have behavior problems, and 2.7 million suffer from depression. It is a major concern that parents and educators are facing as it can lead to academic and behavior issues in the classroom. Parents looking for something other than the clinical counselor couch therapy sessions for their child should consider finding an equine-assisted mental health therapist in their area. As a parent, I used this choice for two of my children and found the experience transformative.
The Journal for Creativity in Mental Health stated that introducing horses to the therapeutic process showed significantly increased positive behaviors while reducing negative behaviors. Studies shown that clients can experience a variety of benefits from equine-assisted psychotherapy and that clients feel that they've achieved something on their own, rather than being told to do something by a parent or teacher.
Offering a much different experience than traditional counseling, EAP brings people outdoors and gives the opportunity to use all senses while learning and processing through emotional challenges. The outdoor atmosphere and activity reduce anxiety allow many children a comfortable environment to talk.
JoAnn Tomer, a licensed counselor and owner of Abel Equestrian, has been combining her love of counseling with her love of horses for 15 years. She stated in a recent interview on The Brighter Side of Education podcast, that horses are very “honest” and mirror their rider’s emotions. This allows children to gain a sense of self-awareness by using the horse’s behavior and interactions for feedback and opportunities to reflect on what is happening in the moment.
Elizabeth Finn started horse therapy when she was 11 years old with JoAnn, and felt that it was emotionally fulfilling. She always wanted to learn how to ride a horse and looked forward to her sessions. She learned how to strengthen her focus and improve her emotional control. She stated that "you can't be scared or your horse will mirror your reactions. Your emotions can effect a situation if you let them rule your life." She felt that horse riding gave her "something to have control over," and to "get out of my own head for awhile." Elizabeth believes that horse therapy is "good for people who love animals because they may talk more. It's easier to open up." Lastly, she felt that horse therapy is also a "good way for kids to get their hands dirty and be in nature." As a parent, I couldn't agree more.
The use of horses for therapeutic purposes has a long history. As far back as ancient Greece, horses were used for therapeutic purposes, and the therapeutic value of horses was recognized by the Native Americans. In the 1940s, a horse ranch in California began using horses to help people with disabilities. Riding became more popular as a therapy tool during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1969, the North American Riding for Handicapped Association was formed, which later became the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. In the 1990s, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) was founded to promote the use of horses for therapeutic purposes. Today, EAP is used in a variety of settings, including private practices, hospitals, and schools.
EAP has been found to be particularly effective for children with ADHD, anxiety, and depression. Here are some of the benefits:
Increased Self-Esteem: EAP can help children to develop a sense of confidence and self-esteem. Working with horses can give them a sense of accomplishment and help them feel more capable.
Reduced Anxiety: Horses have a calming effect on people, and EAP can help children feel more relaxed and at ease. Working with horses can help them learn to manage their anxiety in a safe and supportive environment.
Improved Social Skills: EAP can help children develop social skills. Working with horses requires communication and cooperation, and this can help children to develop these skills.
Increased Emotional Regulation: EAP can help children regulate their emotions. Horses are very intuitive animals, and they can sense when someone is upset or anxious. This can help children to learn to recognize their own emotions and regulate them more effectively.
Improved Focus: EAP can help children improve their focus and attention. Working with horses requires a lot of focus and concentration, and this can help children to develop these skills.
During equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions, therapists use various methods. These methods can include grooming the horse, leading the horse, and participating in horseback riding. Here are some of the methods therapists may use during EAP sessions:
Grooming: Grooming the horse is a calming and grounding activity that can help children with anxiety and ADHD to feel more relaxed and focused. Grooming can also help children to develop a sense of responsibility and care for the animal. It helps establish routines and structure, and the act of caring and nurturing something else can help build empathy.
Leading: Leading the horse involves walking alongside the horse and guiding it through an obstacle course or other activities. This can help children to develop leadership skills and confidence.
Horseback riding: Riding a horse can be a fun and exciting activity for children, and it can also help them to develop balance, coordination, and focus. Horseback riding can also help children to overcome fears and build self-esteem.
Groundwork: Groundwork involves working with the horse on the ground, without riding. This can include activities like lunging, where the horse is led in circles around the therapist or child, or liberty work, where the horse is allowed to move freely in an enclosed area. Groundwork can help children to develop a deeper connection with the horse and improve their communication skills.
A Good Fit for Your Child?
If you are a parent considering equine-assisted psychotherapy for your child, it's important to find a therapist who is trained and experienced in this type of therapy. Look for a therapist who is certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) or another reputable organization. You may also want to visit the therapy center and observe a session to get a better sense of how the therapy works and whether it would be a good fit for your child.
A good fit for your child can be determined by observing how they interact with the horses and therapist. If they seem comfortable and engaged during the sessions, it's a good sign that the therapy is helping them. Additionally, you may notice improvements in your child's behavior and emotional well-being outside of therapy sessions, such as improved social skills, reduced anxiety, or better coping mechanisms. If you notice these positive changes, it's a sign that equine-assisted psychotherapy is a good fit for your child.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy is a powerful tool for helping children with ADHD, anxiety, and depression. The history of EAP goes back thousands of years, and today it is widely recognized as an effective form of therapy. By working with horses, children with these conditions can develop a sense of confidence, reduce their anxiety, improve their social skills, regulate their emotions, and improve their focus. EAP offers a safe and supportive environment for children to work through their challenges and develop the skills they need to thrive.
To hear more about JoAnn Tomer and her experience with counseling and horse therapy, listen to Equine-assisted Psychotherapy with Therapist JoAnn Tomer on The Brighter Side of Education podcast: https://www.buzzsprout.com/2048018/12304840.
Or, you can visit Drugwatch; a free online health resource reviewed by the Health on the Net Foundation, University of Illinois at Chicago's Drug Information Group, and The Physicians' Review Network Inc. at https://www.drugwatch.com/health/mental-health/mental-illness/adhd/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, January 20). Children's Mental Health: Data and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html
Clarke, J. (2022, December 08). Using Equine Therapy as Mental Health Treatment: What Horses Bring to the Therapeutic Process. Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/equine-therapy-mental-health-treatment-4177932