Animal-assisted therapies are growing in popularity and used with pigs, dogs, birds, cats, and horses, just to name a few. I believe all animals are beneficial to our mental and emotional health and wellness, but there are specific reasons to use equines. Horses are unique in therapeutic purposes because of their size, their history, and their movement.
Horses are prey animals so they are always in tune with their environment. They are herd animals, so they are accustomed to working as a group and relying on the herd to meet their survival needs. Horses are also rideable, so they add a layer of movement to therapy work. The horse has an almost identical skeletal structure to a human, which means their movement is very similar to a humans. This is one reason why therapeutic riding is so impactful.
However, a person does not need to ride to benefit from the therapeutic nature of a horse. There are countless ways horses help people, but I will outline a few of the most common today.
Awareness of Self and Environment
As prey animals, horses are constantly checking their environment. All of their senses (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body) are being used just to ensure their safety at all times. Horses are always asking “am I safe? can I escape if necessary?” The horse needs to be able to answer “yes” to these questions before relaxing. Humans often need the same answer to the same questions – am I safe? can I escape? – before we can relax. Horses help us tune into our own environment and our own senses by observing their behavior and learning their body cues.
Connection with Others
The biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life (Wilson, 1984). I think it’s obvious that we feel better (about ourselves, our future, and others) when we connect with another living being. How good does it feel to spend a night laughing with friends or hugging a family member?
Horses have an immediate feedback loop, instantly reacting to any stimuli that enters their environment. It means that they react positively or negatively to every and any change in their environment. A scared, anxious, or angry person may cause a horse to react negatively (i.e. to leave the space) because that stimuli is uncomfortable for a horse. In contrast, a quiet, calm person may cause a positive reaction in the horse (i.e. to approach the person) because it is safe for the horse.
While initially a horse’s size can be intimidating, it leads to a great sense of accomplishment and self-worth when a large animal connects with a human being.
We live our lives jumping to the next task. We complete something and move on, already worried about what’s next. We leave work, thinking about what to cook for dinner or what we need to prepare for tomorrow, rather than enjoying the completion of that big project. We Snapchat our vacation and Instagram our favorite moments rather than deeply enjoying them.
Horses can only live in the present moment. They are not worried about the past or the future, only what is currently occurring. Horses bring a mindfulness to our thoughts and actions because they force us to be mindful of them.
As I mentioned above, there are countless ways the horse provides therapeutic services and these are just a few. I hope this helps you understand ”why horses?” Leave a comment if there is anything else you would like to know! I’d love to know your thoughts!