Hold Your Horses! What is equine therapy, what can it do for you?

By Katie L. Granier, B.A.

It has been said that “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” That somewhat tired phrase may hint at why equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) can help adults of all ages—particularly older adults—improve physical and mental well-being.

While most people think of dogs or maybe cats when considering animal-based therapy, horses also are compassionate, four-legged friends known for their gentle support. Horses have evolved and survived by being “social mirrors,” reading their environment and reacting to cues, which helps people recognize their own emotions and become more in tune with their mind, body, and spirit.

According to Nancy Beers, founder of the Equine Approach in Colorado Springs, interacting with horses helps people become aware of the energy they are carrying and how it comes across in their interactions. By learning to regulate emotions and be authentic in a nonthreatening environment, people are able to learn skills they can use in their other daily interactions.

EAAT is especially helpful for older adults, improving posture and stability, which can reduce the risk of falls and increase overall physical activity, thus improving health and wellness while creating memorable, positive experiences. The option of individual or group sessions also promotes social engagement through both the human-animal bond with the horses as well as meeting and connecting with other people seeking similar experiences.

In addition, EAAT is a wonderful activity for older adults struggling with decreased health or mobility, as the physical engagement is gentle and tailored to each individual’s needs. Many activities do not require riding to participate (such as therapeutic driving with carriages or carts), and safety measures such as gait belts are available for individuals using wheelchairs, walkers, and canes. EAAT is also beneficial for individuals with dementia and their caregivers, creating powerful bonding experiences that can improve partnership and decrease tension.

Individual services for caregivers also are offered to help alleviate stress and gain skills to manage emotions. Family members of individuals with dementia have said their loved ones’ communication and behavior improved after EAAT and that they personally benefited from the joy of seeing positive changes in their loved ones.

Research has found that specific benefits of engaging in EAAT include:

  • Increased awareness of immediate sensations and emotions in older adults;
  • Improved sleep and decreased stress, anxiety, and depression in individuals with dementia and their caregivers;
  • Improved communication between individuals with dementia and their caregivers;
  • Decreased undesired behavior in individuals with dementia;
  • Improved communication and eye contact in individuals with dementia living in long-term-care settings.

In Colorado Springs, The Equine Approach offers three services centered around mental health and personal growth for adults in the community: self-care/wellness sessions, basic horsemanship classes, and horse-assisted learning for skills such as communication, confidence, relaxation, and patience.

For more information, visit their website at theequineapproach.com, email equineapproachllc@gmail.com, or call 719-347-5811. For more riding-based services, the Colorado Springs Therapeutic Riding Center offers riding lessons and therapeutic services (719-634-4173).

Katie Granier, B.A., is a UCCS clinical psychology master’s student completing her practicum at the UCCS Aging Center. For more information, contact Katie at kgranier@uccs.edu or call the UCCS Aging Center at (719) 255-8002. Thank you to Nancy Beers and the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International’s Spring 2019 issue of Strides magazine for the information in this article.

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