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Equine therapy is actually used to refer to a very broad range of activities and treatments which involve the use of horses. You could probably find a range of definitions, but summed up, horse therapy, equine therapy or equitherapy is a way of using horses (and other equines) to promote physical, emotional and mental wellness in individuals, often those who are struggling to function effectively in their daily lives. 

There are three major types of equine assisted therapy; therapeutic riding, equine-assisted psychotherapy and hippo-therapy. A fourth type is equine-assisted learning, which is used less commonly. 

Therapeutic riding is probably the form of horse therapy that most of us would recognise. This is usually taught by a riding instructor rather than a therapist, and involves teaching someone how to control a horse on the ground and while riding. It is often used to help people with physical disabilities learn to relax, as well as to improve muscle tone, balance and coordination. Therapeutic riding can also improve sensory and motor skills – but is usually not recommended as a method of mental treatment as there is a lack of evidence to support its effectiveness. 

Hippotherapy is similar to therapeutic riding, but it involves the use of a qualified therapist (usually an occupational, physical or speech and language therapist) rather than a riding instructor. This therapist is the one who guides the riders’ movements and motions, and put specific plans in place to address certain problems. The movement, rhythm and interactions with the horse are used to develop certain responses from the rider, and the treatment can help to improve neuromuscular function, motor function, and physical abilities like walking. 

Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) uses interaction with horses to help with emotional and mental disabilities, as well as behavioural issues. This encompasses a lot of different conditions, so EAP could be used to help an individual suffering from a condition such as anxiety or depression, as well as children or adults who have experienced intense trauma. EAP has even been used to assist people with autism and other developmental disorders. The horses can help traumatised individuals to foster relationships and break down barriers and help people develop new ways to interact socially. On top of that, interactions with the horse can be used to reflect on deeper problems.

Equine-assisted learning (EAL) on the other hand can be used to aid personal development and growth, and allows people to learn specific skills and improve abilities. EAL concentrates on three main areas; education, professional development, and personal development.

EAL can help with the following, for instance:

  • Confidence
  • Leadership skills
  • Problem-solving
  • Teamwork
  • Self esteem

Because of this EAL can be handy for able individuals. For instance, someone who is struggling in the workplace could benefit from learning better teamwork or leadership skills, and equine-assisted learning can provide this in a setting which has less stigma attached to it than traditional counselling or therapy. It can also help participants to recognise their own behavioural patterns and use that knowledge to effect change in their personal or professional lives.

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