Since 2000, alternate approaches to traditional health care practices have skyrocketed in popularity, particularly the use of horses in therapeutic settings. This is broadly referred to as equine-assisted activities/learning (EAA). With the ever-growing public interest in EAA and new programs frequently popping up, the need for common terminology and set standards is becoming apparent and urgent. As part of my senior neuroscience thesis, I collected data on public perception, participant experiences, and instructor accreditation through informal interviews and by assisting and observing equine therapy sessions for those with developmental, behavioral, and mental challenges. I also reviewed the literature to identify patterns of need and draw attention to demands for empirical evidence of therapeutic and neurological efficacy.
As prey animals, equines have the innate ability to pick up on the subtlest of cues– particularly shifts in body language and physiological functions such as heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension. In the wild, this is evolutionarily advantageous and allows for rapid communication between horses at close and far range. In a therapeutic setting, this creates a mirror-like effect such that the horse’s movements and behaviors become a real-time reflection of the participant’s physical, mental, and emotional states. This live feedback mechanism can be used to teach clients a myriad of generalizable skills including, but not limited to, proprioception, self-control, self-empowerment, and boundary setting. When appropriately applied, EAA is therapeutic for those with physical, mental, emotional, and developmental dysfunction of varying severities.
This project aimed to highlight the great need for more empirical evidence that quantifies EAA efficacy and examines the physiological and neurological changes that occur during and after human-equine interactions. Going forward, it is important to educate others on the interspecies communication that occurs between the two nervous systems and its holistic benefits.