Equine Therapy For The Chronically Depressed

equine therapy hand touching horse
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In case you haven’t heard, people are hugging horses in droves. Yours truly included.

Recently, I mounted a handsome colt (as in, a young male horse, you lecherous fiend). His name was Charlie. He was tall, brown, had a frizzy mane and jacked-up teeth (but I fell in love anyway).

Charlie resides in a cozy stable at L.A. Horses Rentals in Burbank’s Rancho District. The hour I spent with him on a Sunday afternoon galloping through Oak Canyon near the L.A. River was partly an experiment in equine therapy. The other part was a birthday gift to myself.

What is Equine Therapy?

According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGLA), equine therapy is “an innovative form of psychotherapy that uses horses as facilitative catalysts for personal growth within a safe and nurturing [environment]. Equine therapy [is useful] in experiential learning, emotional processing and integration, increasing self-awareness and understanding of one’s impact on others.”

Simply put, horses are the bomb digs for relieving stress, anxiety, and depression.

Naturally, I was intrigued, whereas my dog, Vernon, was not, owing to his sun in Scorpio, which makes him one of the most jealous creatures on earth.

Sure, humans’ relationships with domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs, have been scientifically proven to give the ‘ole mental health a positive boost.

But horses? Goats? Cows? These are the newest fads.

And I’m all about it.

What’s the Deal with Horses?

Horses have been romanticized since, well, dreadlocked people began writing things down on cave walls.

Our relationship with horses is deeply symbolic: they represent power, strength, and loyalty, among other things. They also symbolize freedom (wild mustangs), innocence (cute foals), beauty (a Gypsy Vanner), and straight-up magic (the fabled unicorn).

Combine that symbolism with the scientifically-proven benefits of equine therapy and you have a powerful, albeit pricey (between $100 and $300 per session), stress reliever.

Does Equine Therapy Work?

Let’s look at the numbers.

A five-year research project that involved hundreds of “chronically depressed” people concluded that human/horse interactions provide a long list of mental and physical benefits.

Participants included young mothers in abusive relationships, children with behavior problems, and even inmates serving time for heinous crimes.

The results were astonishing: 97 percent of participants reported a more positive self-image, 87 percent experienced increased self-esteem, and 82 percent were able to “forget anger.”

Furthermore, equine therapy and its subsets (i.e. hippotherapy, equine-assisted learning, etc.) can be useful for individuals who suffer from autism spectrum disorder, especially children.

equine therapy woman caring for horse

Equine Therapy in Action

Horses are non-judgmental, unlike my dog, Vernon, who’ll avoid me for several hours after picking him up from the dog sitter.

A judgment-free zone (as they say in Planet Fitness) creates a safe environment for emotional expression and reduces the perception of risk.

More importantly, horses can be very relaxed around people, making them ideal therapy animals.

One study showed that steeds have an innate ability to sense distress without understanding its cause, which is particularly therapeutic for humans because it allows their feelings to be “mirrored” back at them.

Horses are also believed to smell fear in humans and pick up on all kinds of stuff. That includes moods, which is par for the course when dealing with humans. Horses can also get pretty close, which makes them great for eye contact, an intimate act that elicits trust in humans.

3 Tips Before Starting Equine-Assisted Therapy

For some people, riding a horse on a Sunday afternoon is enough to gain a boost of positive mental health. It’s also a cheaper pick-me-up than signing up for a therapist-led program. (My one-hour ride with Charlie was only $40 bucks.)

On the other hand, those considering long-term, equine-assisted therapy would do well to follow a few basic tips from the EAGLA:

  • Establish an individualized purpose together with your therapist. You’ll need to consider what you’d like to gain from treatment. Examples include “I want to feel more emotionally balanced” or “I need to learn how to control my temper.”
  • Choose the best therapy style for you. Are you looking for equine-assisted learning to develop your cognitive skills or equine-assisted group therapy to enhance your social skills?
  • Get to know your therapist and be comfortable around them. Keep in mind that horses are “passive participants” in equine therapy, which means your therapist is the one guiding the process. Make sure you’re both on the same page about working with horses to achieve your mental health goals.

Horses are Horses, People Are People

Equine therapy isn’t for everyone. While it can be a bust for some people, it can work wonders for others.

Either way, there are many options out there to get a positive mental boost in life, and equine therapy is just one of them.

Just remember that you’re not the next Little House on the Prairie — riding off into the sunset on your trusty steed expecting him or her to fix you without putting in the work on your end.

It’s therapy, which means you’ll have to give as much as you receive. Otherwise, Charlie won’t give a f*ck about your chronic depression. He’ll just amble on over to the nearest apple orchard and forget you ever existed.

Ready for some Equine Therapy?

If you’re looking to get in on some of this equine therapy action, there are a few options. The main two are private sessions and group sessions.

Private therapy is the more expensive option, but it’s worth seeking out if you can afford it. You’ll get individual attention and your own horse to ride around on. And while that sounds like a dream come true for some folks, sessions typically last one hour each week, so it’s not exactly an escape vehicle from reality.

By contrast, group sessions are a more affordable choice, but you’ll have to get over the fact that other people will be handling your horse. Before you balk at this idea, it’s important to remember that research shows these other humans aren’t going to steal your beloved steed from you. They’re just going to ride him around while flirting with your therapist. 😉 

Group sessions are also far more common, which means you’ll have a greater chance of getting the exact type of equine therapy that suits your needs. Some sessions are hands-on while others are strictly about observation. But one thing’s for sure: you’re going to learn a lot about other people’s problems while figuring out how to solve your own.

Lastly, the next time someone jokes about you spending all of your free time at the barn, you can explain that there’s a very good reason for it, and it doesn’t involve spousal abuse (at least not physically).

You could be helping yourself by helping others help themselves … on a horse. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll look better, too, because how can you possibly be depressed when there’s a horse between your legs?

(I walked right into that one, didn’t I?)

me and charlie


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