How Horse Therapy Helps Reduce Anxiety & Heal From Trauma

Al Bello/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

As someone who lives with anxiety and depression, I know that figuring out a treatment plan can feel overwhelming. And methods like talk therapy, medication, or lifestyle changes don’t always work for everyone. If you’re trying to figure out what fits your needs, you might want to give equine therapy, or horse therapy, which can help manage anxiety and trauma, a try.

According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, this form of therapy can “treat behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs.”

The idea that riding a horse can be so life-changing may seem a little dubious, but it’s something I’ve experienced first-hand. When I was a kid, I loved horseback riding, either with my friends or by myself. There was nothing more peaceful than riding on the trail beneath the lush green of the trees. The connection I felt with horses was powerful as well. I felt that they understood me in a way that not many people did, and it was soothing to talk with them. And as an adult, when I had less time for riding, I still found myself making “emergency trips” to the stables whenever my depression or anxiety became too overwhelming. I felt recharged every time I left.

I wasn’t alone. Lela Casey, 43, says that she found comfort in horseback riding while being bullied as “ the only Jewish [kid], the only Middle Eastern kid, and a painfully shy bookworm.” Casey tells Bustle that “Something about how [the horse] seemed to sense what I wanted with only a whisper of a movement from me calmed all the chaos and stress of the real world.”

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Equine therapists — who are all professionals, like physical therapists or a licensed psychotherapists — try to harness this feeling of connection with horses to achieve mental health goals for their patients. In an op-ed for Psychology Today, Dr. Constance Scharff, who uses equine therapy in her role as an addiction counselor, wrote that “Horses can be an emotional mirror for humans. They respond to the feeling state we show… Horses never hide their emotions. Because of these qualities, horses can be used to help people heal from a variety of psychological issues.”

This form of treatment has been helpful for survivors of sexual violence. Susie Bjorklund, the executive director of Freedom Farm, which provides free equine therapy for female-identitfied veterans recovering from sexual assault, told The New York Times that this therapy can bring up powerful feelings that ultimately have a healing effect. “They are learning how their body is affecting the horse, which is opening all sorts of emotions, and for some of the women who’ve gone through sexual trauma, it’s allowing yourself to feel from the waist down, where you have shut off all feeling,” Bjorklund said.

And while it’s not an official form of equine therapy, an organization called the Compton Cowboys is using horseback riding to combat gang violence. “We were in competition with gangs, so we had to provide the same things gangs did: camaraderie, an extended family, a safe haven,” founder Mayisha Akbar told Roy Wood Jr. in an January 2019 episode of The Daily Show. One member, Kiera, who lost her brother to gang violence, told Wood that she was saved by this activity, “Sometimes when I can’t function or articulate my words… I just go to my horse and that energy is just so peaceful,” she said.

Alexandre Loureiro/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Not all equine therapy involves riding the horse, and in fact, most don’t. That’s called therapeutic riding, and not every program includes it. In an article published by the Journal of Trauma and Treatment, Eva J. Usadi and Rev. Sean A Levine say that this is applicable to veterans experiencing “moral injury,” which according to The Moral Injury Project, is "damage done to one’s conscience or moral compass when that person perpetrates, witnesses, or fails to prevent acts that transgress one’s own moral beliefs, values, or ethical codes of conduct."

For these veterans, Usadi and Levine says it isn't helpful to have “access to halters, lead lines or other instruments of domination or control.” Connection with the horse is better achieved when “veterans keep their feet on the ground. Also, for some patients with disabilities, riding on the horse isn’t possible or helpful, so healing is achieved through tacking, grooming, or simply talking with the horse.

Horseback riding is usually thought of as an expensive activity, with a one hour session usually ranging from $45-$100, but many therapeutic stables take health insurance. Psychology Today has a tool that helps you find therapeutic programs near you, and that take your health insurance. However, if you’re uninsured, some places offer financial assistance or scholarships. Although only trained professionals are qualified to deal with the complicated emotions that may arise, simply going riding by yourself or with the help of a trainer can feel exhilarating and stress-relieving. In addition, horseback riding is excellent exercise, offering cardio benefits and increasing muscle tone, according to the Certified Horsemanship Association.

Riding horses is not just a way to get exercise, though. It’s a liberating activity that can bring all kinds of healing benefits. Horseback riding saved me from some dark moments as a kid, and as an adult, it continues to save me from time to time. It's amazing to see that so many others have used it to recover from trauma and relieve painful symptoms.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.