American writer Bret Harte wrote that “of all animals kept for the recreation of mankind, the horse alone is capable of exciting a passion that shall be absolutely hopeless.”
I can attest to the truth of this, as I’ve been absolutely, hopelessly in love with horses since I was little. I’ve been lucky enough to take riding lessons, compete, and spend time getting to know these sweet creatures. When I was going through a tough time with my health, spending time out at the barn with the horses helped me recover emotionally. I was undergoing treatments for a benign vascular tumor that was preventing a lot of physical activity. The one day a week I was able to get out to the barn was the one day a week where I felt normal.
The same can be true for cancer patients. It’s well-known and widely accepted that dogs and other pets can be great additions to a therapy program, but horses are often overlooked. Equine therapy is a versatile, multi-faceted way for anyone who is struggling to take a break and recover their strength. Using horses as a therapeutic tool isn’t a new idea — Hippocrates was writing about it in ancient Greece.
Here are a few reasons why you might consider equine therapy:
1. Change of Setting
If there ever was a more polar opposite to a hospital, it’s a barn. Rolling green fields and the smell of sawdust are a far cry from anything remotely clinical. Time slows down out here, clearing your mind almost instantly. It sounds like a platitude, but it’s true. It’s a change of pace that can help you reset and recharge away from anything you might connect with being sick.
2. Physical Rehabilitation
Horse care and riding are inherently physical. While you might not break a sweat or be out of breath immediately, there are lots of physical benefits to horseback riding and everything that comes with it. A pilot study by Cerulli, et al. found that therapeutic horseback riding has “a positive effect” on a person’s physicality. Grooming a horse, for example, gets your upper body and hand-eye coordination working as you brush their coat or pick their hooves. This activity can support your efforts to maintain your health or build muscle after a period of inactivity.
Horses can take your mind off pretty much anything. Case in point — have you ever been driving on the highway and not exclaimed “Horses!” when driving by horses? They’re big, fluffy and naturally demand attention. Furthermore, in order to be around horses safely a certain degree of concentration is required. In my experience, every day at the barn also brings something new to learn. So, equine therapy works wonderfully as a tool to take a break from worry, grief, and pain, and simply be yourself for a while.
4. Feeling In Control
Speaking personally, the most difficult part of my health issues was the feeling that I wasn’t in control of my own body. Horseback riding and horse care hand you the reins (pun very much intended). You enter into a partnership with another creature who trusts you to be in control, both in and out of the saddle. You’re calling the shots, setting the pace and deciding where to go. It feels like freedom, in the form of a four-legged friend and leather tack.
Building positive relationships is powerful. Finding companionship in horses can be an effective addition to a rehabilitation strategy for any patient. It’s a non-judgemental, unconditional bond. I might sound cheesy, but the place where I feel most comfortable is when I’m around horses. Cerulli et al.’s study also found an overall enhancement of patients’ quality of life after several weeks of therapeutic riding. Just ask any pet owner — we’re better off with a furry friend in our lives.
There is no clear path to recovery or rehabilitation. Equine therapy certainly isn’t the only option, either. But if you’re an animal person, or just want to spend some time outdoors, you might consider exploring it for yourself or a loved one.