It’s not news to anyone working in health and wellness that 45% of Australians will a common mental health-related condition in their lifetime, including depression, anxiety or a substance use disorder. However, what may be news is that equine assisted psychotherapy has a growing body of research showing the benefits and outcomes for those experiencing mental health conditions.
Many therapists instinctively knew that interacting with animals could have a beneficial effect, with horses even being referred to as a “large biofeedback machine[i]”. Encouragingly for those seeking evidence-based practices to improve patient outcomes, new studies continue to show measurable improvements can be attained using such therapeutic activities.
One new study is Equine-assisted therapy for anxiety and posttraumatic stress symptoms (Earles JL, et al. J Trauma Stress. 2015), from Department of Psychology, Wilkes Honors College, Florida Atlantic University, USA. The study tested the efficacy of equine-assisted therapy for anxiety and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms. In this study, participants who had experienced severe trauma were engaged in tasks with horses for two hour sessions every week over six weeks.
Extracts from the study report:
Immediately following the final session, participants reported significantly reduced posttraumatic stress symptoms, d = 1.21, less severe emotional responses to trauma, d = 0.60, less generalized anxiety, d = 1.01, and fewer symptoms of depression, d = 0.54. As well, participants significantly increased mindfulness strategies, d = 1.28, and decreased alcohol use, d = 0.58.
Additionally, the first study providing evidence that shows horses can read human facial expressions and associated emotions has been recently released and provides increasing insight into the effectiveness of such therapies.
In a study published by The Royal Society this year[ii], titled Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus), horses are shown to be able to ‘spontaneously discriminate between positive (happy) and negative (angry) human facial expressions’. Responses such as the ones found in the study have previously been documented in dogs, but this is the first time they have been proven in horses.
The Equine Psychotherapy Institute, in Australia, in providing overviews of various Australian-based studies into the effective of this therapeutic model summarises the evidence and says,
EAP sessions can provide a range of enjoyable activities that allow clients to develop social skills, coping resources and distress tolerance which, in turn, can help to foster long-term change and relapse prevention (Brandt, 2013). Due to their willingness to express emotion, incorporating horses into a therapeutic setting creates an effective medium through which clients are able to reconnect with their authentic selves. This can be seen from the moment an individual comes into contact with a horse. People frequently are drawn to a horse that reflects their personality, often feeling an immediate connection with horses that resonate with their core issues (Rothe et al., 2005). “Being in the presence of horses, and in relationship with horses, provides opportunities for humans to reflect on their relational impact, stretch into different styles of contact, build self and relational awareness, and, feel into their body, energy and feelings as information for strengthening self regulation, choice and responsibility” (Kirby, 2010, p.62)[iii].
The holistic wellness approach at The Banyans Health and Wellness Residence was the driving force for the inclusion of a number of horses as part of the therapeutic team. Along with horses Cracker, George, Lightning, and the miniature horse Sparkle, the team inludes the expertise of Dr Anja Kriegeskotten FRANZCP, the lead psychiatrist and Equine Therapist and Holly Ohlson, Equine Specialist.
Dr Anja, who is an EAGALA accredited equine therapist, explains the benefits of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. “Horses have finely tuned senses such as hearing, smell and touch. Horses can also sense our emotional state, even when we are not aware of it. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is not about horsemanship or dominating the horses nor about riding, but about becoming a guest member of the herd. Horses will then naturally reflect what is going on for that person emotionally at this time. The experience occurs without words and therefore there is no risk of miscommunication via spoken language.”
Research around the benefits of such therapies remain important, as the proven effectiveness of emerging therapies allows the development of new modalities of treatment. Most importantly though, the delivery of such therapies allow people to experience improvements in their mental health. For integrated wellness approaches such as those employed at The Banyans, the news could not be better.
[i] Boatwright, A. (2013, April 1). The outside of a horse. Horse&Rider. Retrieved April 27, 2016, from http://horseandrider.com/article/equine-facilitated-psychotherapy-13327
[ii] Functionally relevant responses to human facial expressions of emotion in the domestic horse (Equus caballus) Amy Victoria Smith, Leanne Proops, Kate Grounds, Jennifer Wathan, Karen McComb. Published 10 February 2016.DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2015.0907. Retrieved 13 May 2016, http://rsbl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/12/2/20150907