By Anne Krueger, Barbara Hey & Andrea Reynes, Natural Solutions
Many of us have seen the positive relationships that can develop between horses and humans. Who can forget Roy Rogers and Trigger? Wilbur and Mr. Ed? But long before Velvet and Pi were bonding in National Velvet, horses were being used to facilitate improved health and well-being in humans. The ancient Greeks documented the therapeutic use of riding horses in 600 B.C., and the first study of the value of riding as therapy was reported in 1875, when a French physician used it as a treatment for a variety of neurological and psychological disorders.
Today, scientific literature supporting the value of equine-assisted therapy abounds. At least 10 studies conducted over the past 20 years have shown animal-assisted therapy–of which equine therapy is a common form–is effective in treating conditions such as anxiety, autism, dementia, depression and attention-deficit disorder, as well as eating disorders and other emotional and mental illnesses.
Equine therapy continues to gain in popularity. In Tennessee, at Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding, horseback riders with spina bifida experience the exhilarating rolling movement of walking for the first time, via the four legs of a horse rather than their own two. At Green Chimneys in upstate New York, horses from Iceland, donated from Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton, help kids with emotional problems learn how to feel independent and self-confident. And from California to Florida, treatment centers are offering equine-assisted therapy to help people with everything from drug addiction to cancer recovery.
Why horses? They’re big and powerful, which means those riding and grooming them must overcome fear and develop confidence. Indeed, working with a horse can be a challenge. Horses have a way of seeing right through you; they see your fear, your feelings of inadequacy and your sorrow, according to research published by Edward J. Cumella, PhD, director of research at the Remuda Ranch treatment center in Wickenburg, Ariz. “Horses’ sensitivity to nonverbal communication assists patients in developing greater awareness of their own emotions and nonverbal cues, as well as the role of nonverbal communication in relationships,” Cumella reports.
Like us, horses have different personalities, and what works for one horse won’t work for another. Horses also require people to be engaged and to persevere in challenging physical and mental work, a characteristic that comes in handy when dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations in life, whether it’s an eating or behavioral disorder, a handicap or a serious illness.
A horse can become a nonjudgmental friend, but often its rider must adapt or change his or her behavior in order for the horse to respond. These changes, as demonstrated by the following three stories, can help a person in crisis find the strength to go on.
Next: A Horse Named Levi–Healing Anorexia