“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
These are resounding words spoken by the eloquent Winston Churchill and later used in a quote by President Ronald Reagan. These words ring true for equine enthusiasts everywhere, but have recently become prevalent in the mental health realm of the medical profession.
Over the last several years mental health has gained some much needed recognition in the US. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma are being recognized more and more as medical disorders requiring intervention. Alternatives to medication and adjunct therapies are increasingly used to treat these and other mental health issues. Some of these solutions incorporate horses.
It is easy for horse owners, caregivers, and riders to see the multiple benefits of spending time with horses. The human-horse bond is a special connection. Engaging in grooming, riding, and caring for horses requires a level of selflessness, teamwork, and attentiveness. These qualities promote confidence, empathy, mental clarity, and self-esteem in those of us who are not openly seeking mental health therapies; it’s only fitting that these principles be applied to those who are.
As more studies are done and more medical and mental health professionals realize the unique benefits, physically, mentally, emotionally, and chemically, horses can provide, more individuals across America are participating in equine-assisted services (EAS). Physically, the touch associated with petting and grooming a horse provides sensory and neuromotor stimulation. Concentration and self-awareness are just two of the many mental benefits EAS provides. Increased feelings of self-worth and positive outlook are seen emotionally, and chemically, stress hormones, such as cortisol, are decreased when participating in EAS.
Founded in 1969, Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) is the industry leader in mounted and unmounted equine-assisted services in the US. Offering membership, credentialing, and education, PATH Intl. “is committed to the advancement of equine-assisted services for lifelong impact,” as their website, pathintl.org, states. PATH Intl. helps connect participants and families to PATH Intl. programs, delivers education opportunities, and certifies professional service providers- most popularly the National Commision for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) accredited PATH Intl. Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor Certification. Kaye Marks, Director of Marketing and Communications for PATH Intl., states, “Through the work of 813 member centers and more than 5,424 professionals credentialed through PATH Intl., 53,399 children and adults, including more than 5,900 veterans, are helped through a variety of equine-assisted services.”
According to Kaye, “PATH Intl. leads the advancement of professional equine-assisted services by supporting its members and stakeholders through rigorously developed standards, credentialing and education. PATH Intl. adapts and grows with the industry by developing credentialing programs and education based on needs, such as its new equine-assisted Learning Credential. Centers adapt and evolve to changing community environments. Examples of that are adding programs for our aging population or for veterans. The industry continues to grow by professionalizing the services provided as more of the public has learned about the power of interacting with equines as a way to help individuals reach their health and wellness goals.”
A very important aspect that sets PATH Intl. apart in the industry is their commitment to veterans. “Veterans of any age, branch, war or area of conflict can benefit from the program,” according to pathintl.org. PATH Intl. is devoted to “serving those who serve,” and “the goal of PATH International Equine Services for Heroes is to make mounted and unmounted EAS available to any veteran or military personnel within or near their home communities,” the website states. From therapeutic horsemanship, such as riding and driving, to psychotherapy and physical therapy incorporating horses to strengthen both the mind and body, PATH Intl. programs provide veterans with numerous physical and psycho-social benefits.
Kaye explains individuals are able to become PATH Intl. certified through their credentialing programs. A PATH Intl. Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor (PATH Intl. CTRI®) certification is available. This is a breakthrough in the industry, as “PATH Intl. CTRI®s hold the first independently-accredited certification in the equine-assisted services industry and the equine industry as a whole. That has been the culmination of ten year’s work, and it’s very important for the public to know as they seek a provider to work with. Receiving accreditation for the PATH Intl. Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor (PATH Intl. CTRI®) certification from the NCCA is an exciting milestone for the equine-assisted services industry,” Kaye states.
Not only are equines being partnered with those individuals facing mental health challenges, they are also being increasingly incorporated in physical and occupational therapy, speech language pathology, psychology and counseling, and outdoor recreation therapy. These treatment plans are led by licensed medical providers. EAS are beneficial for many populations, from individuals with autism, to those struggling with addiction.
Psychotherapy and counseling incorporating equines are experiential treatment methods (those using activities to facilitate healing) that utilize the bond between people and horses to precipitate both emotional and physical healing. Based on individual needs, different types of therapy may be used. In fact, those recovering from substance abuse specifically benefit from the unique and powerful lessons incorporating horses in therapy provides, including learning how to trust both themselves and others, self-reflection, and learning new coping behaviors. Studies have shown sessions involving horses can be more effective than traditional therapies in treating those with substance dependencies.
Not to be forgotten, family members and close friends of those seeking help can benefit too. Focusing on being present in the moment with the equine helps those struggling with the secondary trauma of a loved one’s suffering become more aware of their feelings, behaviors, and reactions. Learning through experiences, instead of talking through feelings and thoughts, has proven beneficial as both clients and their loved ones can express themselves through interactions with the horse. The non-judgmental horse and therapeutic bond created can be especially valuable for these individuals.
Horses can be an asset in overcoming challenges in all walks of life. From spending time with your horse at the barn, to therapies directed at overcoming specific obstacles and promoting health, Winston Churchill again said it best: “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.”