What is Equine-Assisted Therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) is an animal-assisted therapy that involves interactions between horses and patients to promote mental, emotional, and even physical health. EAT is part of a term that encompasses many styles of therapy related to horses known as Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT). EAAT treats several physical, neurological, mental health, behavioral, and emotional issues in its broadest sense. 

There are many forms of Equine-assisted therapies that fall under the umbrella of EAAT. However, the two most common activities are: 

Equine-assisted learning (EAL) is classified as an unmounted form of equine-assisted activities that don’t involve actually riding the horse. Activities related to EAL include (but are not limited to) walking, grooming, and feeding horses. EAL is typically used as a group therapy practice. While a licensed therapist can conduct this form of therapy, it is generally used to teach group dynamics rather than promote mental health treatment. 

Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is a horse-assisted therapy where mental health professionals treat one or more clients using experiential treatment involving a horse. These activities may or may not involve riding but typically include grooming, feeding, and walking horses. By helping patients gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others and their behavior patterns and feelings, mental health professionals can help them improve their cognitive, emotional, social, and mental well-being.  

Equine-Assisted Therapy for Teenage Girls

Equine-assisted therapy has become a popular therapy in the psychiatric treatment of troubled teenage girls. Therapeutic boarding schools and residential treatment centers choose to integrate equine therapy and equine activities more than ever - and for a good reason. 

Studies show that equine therapy effectively reaches teenage girls who are otherwise resistant to trusting therapeutic specialists to help them rehabilitate their underlying mental health-related issues

As to why the use of horses increases the effect of traditional therapy, there are several reasons. First, horses are stubborn but incredibly empathetic creatures - much like most teenage girls themselves. Horses can recognize their rider or caregiver's emotions to an almost uncanny extent. Horses can feel when their rider is anxious, angry, or scared. Teens who engage with the horse can pick up on this emotional response immediately. The horse essentially works as a gauge of the teen's emotional state, which, in turn, helps the teenager to recognize and fully connect with their emotions. 

This exchange of understanding between horses and teenagers quickly allows them to build a bond of trust and empathy for one another. Mental health professionals who facilitate the treatment can then help teens break down their so-called guard, where they can then address underlying issues and work through them.

Horses Advance the Therapeutic Process

Equine therapy is known to help progress the therapeutic and healing process of troubled teenage girls at a significantly higher rate than traditional sit-down talk therapy. Through the bonding and emotionally disarming nature of the horse, mental health professionals can help teens address deep-seated issues and bring them to the surface where they can be finally worked through and overcome.

What's more, EAT can help troubled teenage girls recognize their strengths and confront their weaknesses. And, unlike traditional one-on-one therapy - where teenage girls tend to be shut down and indifferent towards their therapist - equine therapy's experiential aspects cause therapy sessions to leave an impression that is long-lasting as opposed to superficial and fleeting progress they otherwise would be. 

Horses Help Develop Empathy, Overcome Fears, and New Coping Skills

As previously mentioned, horses are incredible at sensing their rider or caregiver's state of emotional health - even more so than teenage girls may sense themselves. Consequently, the horse's acknowledgment of a teen's emotional state can help teens recognize the emotions they are feeling and how to recognize their emotions in that present moment. Most troubled teens are experts at masking and running away from their emotions because addressing them often feels uncomfortable.

Many times, troubled teens don't even realize they are hiding or burying negative feelings. So, when they are finally able to address their feelings, head-on with equine-assisted therapy, troubled teenage girls can face their fears and overcome their uncomfortable, underlying emotions, which, in turn, helps them develop much-needed self-confidence and belief in themselves. 

Working with horses can also help girls to develop empathy. For example, if a horse becomes difficult to work with, this will lead to a discussion. Trying to guide a difficult horse can be like trying to guide a difficult teen. So, these discussions can lead to empathy towards parents and other adults.

Also, because horses are large, some girls find them intimidating. Therapists work with girls to overcome their apprehensiveness. Girls develop emotional coping skills. The skills they develop not only help with Equine Therapy but other challenges. Girls learn to deal with life situations no matter how large or intimidating.

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