Can Horses Reduce Depression, Anxiety, and Other Mental Health-Related Issues?.... Well, Just Read for Yourself.

Equine-assisted therapy (EAT), which involves interacting with horses to boost emotional and behavioral health, has become a rising trend among the mental health community over the last few decades. 

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of online testimonials from a broad spectrum of people from every social, economic, and age who swear by its validity based upon their own experience. Once considered effective only in treating physical ailments, EAT has thus far proven to be an overwhelmingly effective treatment in treating mental health-related issues, especially regarding at-risk, troubled teens. 

The History of Equine Therapy, Scientific Studies, and Its Modern Application of Reducing Anxiety 

Even those who have participated in equine therapy and swear to have been better for it might not even realize how far back this historical treatment can trace its roots. Unbelievably, therapy involving horse-based treatments go as far back as the ancient Greeks and has been consistently used since the 1500s in some parts of the world. 

The Ancient Origins and Study of Equine Therapy

According to historians at the Department of Animal Sciences at North Dakota State University, Orbasis of ancient Lydia is regarded as the first person to document the apparent therapeutic connection between rider and horse as early as 600 BC. 

The researchers also point to Hippocrates of Kos, the famous Greek physician. 

Hippocrates is considered to be “one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine.” The ancient surgeon is cited in their research, having studied the human-equine therapeutic connection for most of his lifetime and documenting his findings in his work, aptly titled Natural Exercise. 

From there, the physical benefits of equine therapy were evidently valued and put to use in western Europe from the 1500s to 1800s as a means to rehabilitate wounded soldiers. 

However, during the Olympics of 1952 in Helsinki, Finland, psychiatric experts and the general public would learn to appreciate the untapped potential of equine therapy through healing human-horse-connection. This is thanks to a Danish dressage competitor, Lis Hartel, winning the silver medal despite her (until-then) well-hidden diagnosis of polio that had left her partially paralyzed. 

It wasn’t until Hartel stood on the podium that the crowd was able to realize she suffered from would should have been massive, even disqualifying physical handicap. But, according to Lis and adoring fans, the connection with her horse provided her what can only be described as miraculously symptom-relieving effects. 

According to one reporter, “Once she began riding, the effects of her disability effectively disappeared.” Her well-covered and widely seen benefits from horse riding helped show the world the true power of the bond between horse and human. 

The Mental Health Benefits of Equine Therapy and Its Clinical  Studies

The newest applied type of equine therapy and its clinically proven benefits are perhaps its most exciting: improving severe mental health issues, especially in troubled youth. 

Over the past several decades, psychiatrists, child therapists, and specially trained equestrian professionals have developed a mental health-based equine therapy treatment.

Emotional and behavioral health equine therapies are increasingly becoming among the most popular cutting-edge treatments that are being used in the field of mental health today. Its effectiveness in treating behavioral and emotional disorders has made the treatment especially sought after by parents of troubled teens. 

Equine-assisted therapy is currently being used by therapeutic boarding schools, residential treatment centers, rehabs, therapists, and wilderness therapy programs to treat a myriad of issues, including: 

  • Addiction
  • Depression
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Trauma and PTSD
  • Schizophrenia
  • ADHD
  • ADD
  • And More

With its popularity, equine therapy has also garnered the attention of the scientific and clinical fields looking to study equine therapy’s potential mental health benefits. And, as many parents and families of those who have participated in mental health-based equine-assisted therapy can already guess, the results thus far have been more than promising.  

From the University, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff, UK, Dr. Hannah Louise Burgon Cardiff published her research into Equine-assisted therapy and its clinical benefits for at-risk youth in the International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation in 2014. 

In her study, Horses, Mindfulness and the Natural Environment:  Observations from a Qualitative Study with At-Risk Young People Participating in EAT, Dr. Burgon’s team found that the treatment effectively decreases negative symptoms in adolescents with depression and anxiety. 

The study included at-risk pre-teens between the ages of 11 and 12. According to her team’s report, the majority of the at-risk teenage participants reported feeling less depressed, having greater mental well-being, feeling calmer, more present, and less anxious. In addition, the participants who continued the EAT reported having felt the same benefits 6-months later. 

A similar published study conducted by Kaitlyn Wilson in 2015 found similar results with at-risk teens with schizophrenia. According to her team’s study, Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy for adolescents experiencing depression and anxiety, most of the 90 participants felt less need for clinical observation after one session. The participants’ decreased symptoms of psychosis and aggression were still evident for several months after completing treatment. 

Perhaps the most impactful study to come in the last two decades was looking into the EAT’s benefits in treating children with severe PTSD. 

The published ‘Equine-assisted psychotherapy: a mental health promotion/intervention modality for children who have experienced intra-family violence’ was conducted in 2007 by Dr. Pamela N. Shultz. The study included equine therapists, clinical researchers, and 19 EAT sessions with adolescents with a history of experiencing severe neglect and physical abuse. After 19 sessions, all participants showed a significant decrease in their traumatic-based symptoms, including depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal ideation.  

So, Does EAT Promote Mental, Emotional, And Behavioral Benefits?... Absolutely. 

While EAT clinical trials into the mental health benefits of troubled teens are still in their infancy, there is no denying the results of its mental health applications -- both clinically and in hundreds of testified cases thus far. 

The studies included in this article are only a picked few of mounting others. The only reason for ‘limited’ albeit validating research is that equine-assisted therapy is brand new in the eyes of psychiatry. It is simply a matter of time, in the opinion of this humble writer (and over a dozen published clinical studies, consisting of hundreds of subjects and the world’s elite psychiatric researchers), that science catches up to this increasingly popular treatment.