mental health

Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy/Occupational Therapy Summer Internship

By Arianna Velcich, Mental Health Occupational Therapy, University of Scranton

Occupational therapists work with their clients to help them achieve a fulfilled state in the person’s life through the use of activities that are found to be meaningful to the client. The goal is to achieve the highest level of independence that is realistic for the client. The believed role of equine-facilitated therapy is that horses may be highly beneficial in aiding in the healing process of a person struggling with a mental illness. As an occupational therapy student observing at SkyRiding L.I., I quickly learned the link between occupational therapy and equine-facilitated therapy.

Using horses to treat a person with mental illness can assist in improving their cognitive, physical, emotional, and social skills. Due to the fact that horses are prey animals, they are  sensitive to changes in human behavior. A horse may react differently depending on the emotional state of the person. A large part of communication is depicted through unspoken language and gestures, which certain people find difficult to read. Learning to read a horses behavior can then be generalized into reading another humans behavior. Throughout my experience at SkyRiding L.I., I have seen that the child’s level of comfort when interacting with the horse is often higher than when they interact with another human. Working with the horses serves as a third party in the therapy session and eliminates certain hesitancy that may be present in just a client/patient relationship.

There are not only emotional benefits but physical ones as well. Riding a horse improves core strength, balance and stability, coordination and flexibility. This activity also provides a positive impact by training the lower limbs as well as the intrinsic hand muscles. Finding ways to practice certain skills without performing the actual activity is called generalization and is a skill occupational therapists often use. One way this skill can be used is through observation. During my experience, I noticed that motor coordination, eye movements, body functions, and the ability to follow directions that go into riding a horse are similar to those needed for driving a car. Along with all the other muscles horseback riding strengthens, the intrinsic hand muscles are substantially developed due to griping the reigns. This, in turn, can improve a child’s ability to hold a pencil and write. Overall, equine-facilitated therapy can help a person achieve many occupational therapy goals. Two of the most prevalent and equally important goals to the rest are play and leisure.



The Horse is a Metaphor for Your Life

The horse is a metaphor for your world, environment and life. A steady rhythmic horse, the first level on the training scale, provides riders with an opportunity to move up the scale and to accomplish new things.

A steady rhythmic life provides an opportunity to thrive, learn new things and move forward. When we are stuck in our lives then we should look to our world for inconsistencies. Take a critical look at your days, your routine, living environment and finances. Look at the people around you. Are they supportive? When we are surrounded by loving, supportive people life begins to feel steady and consistent, and we may begin to feel comfortable enough to take opportunities to move forward, even just a little.

Steady finances/income may offer the stability needed to take a class or join a book group. When days are spent worrying about basic needs there is little room for growth.  When the horse’s basic movement is hindered by a lameness issue and moving forward is physically difficult then there is no room to try to move up the training scale. There is no way to move forward.

A thriving horse has fresh hay, clean accessible water and loving caretakers. The environment in which we live requires fresh fruit and vegetables, high quality proteins and loving, thoughtful people all around.

Take inventory of your world.  What horse are you riding? Is your horse lame? If so, find a horse that moves in a steady, rhythmic pace to facilitate moving forward in your life.

A Horse With Many Names

A Horse of 1000 Names

What’s in a name?  If you were assigned a horse named “Diablo” how would you feel?  Or “Thriller”? Or “Baby”?  Our thoughts and feelings about our horse’s name can prescribe our feelings and our expectations about our experience with our horse.  Why should we let this external factor affect our experience of our horse?  What would happen instead if we approached each interaction with complete openness and lack of expectation?

One of our favorite EFP horses has been given many names by our clients:  To a client who is in a period of transition in her life, the horse is “Chance”.  To a client who is looking for closeness, the horse is “Buddy”.  Another client named the horse “Marlboro”.

In Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, the horse becomes a mirror in which the client is reflected. During the activities which could include grooming, leading, touching or riding the horse, the horse reacts to our energy as well as our nonverbal cues and acts according to what it is picking up.  A horse may pull away, refuse to budge, run around the paddock, nuzzle us, or wrap its neck around us in a horse “hug”.  Time after time, we hear from clients, “That’s exactly what I do…the horse is me.”

When we give our EFP horse a name, what are we really saying about ourselves?