What Are Horses Good For?

by Kristin Berkery

In an age of automation and rapidly changing technology, are horses anything other than companion animals? It turns out that they can offer us so much more.

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.
         Winston Churchill

A canter is a cure for every evil.
         Benjamin Disraeli

Therapeutic horse riding is often used in the treatment of adults and children with a variety of dysfunctions. Called “hippotherapy,” it can help individuals improve their balance and postural strength along with a number of other neurophysiologic benefits. The American Hippotherapy Association provides a strategic plan and a list of professionals who utilize their program in the therapeutic treatment of autism, cerebral palsy, sensory integration disorders, brain injury, and more.

Author Marsha Hubler has found another way for horses to help children facing challenges. Her Keystone Stables series features fictional stories about kids who deal with serious issues like foster care, the loss of loved ones, and juvenile delinquency with a horse stable as the backdrop.

Highly rated on book-selling sites, the Keystone Stables series stars Skye, a young girl from the foster care system who overcomes emotional challenges through caring for horses and joining a Christian family.

Marsha Hubler, author of the Keystone Stables series.

Hubler draws from her own experiences as a horse owner, foster parent, and educator of troubled children to write her stories. She also has her own blog, Today’s Horse Facts, that offers tips on caring for and handling horses.

Hands-on work with horses can also be beneficial in treating emotional problems. Programs like Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy pairs horses with troubled teens and adults to help treat anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. The goal is for individuals to feel a connection, possibly for the first time, with another living being.

South University examines how horses are used to help people with emotional problems. There isn’t much clinical research into the topic, but it’s believed that horses are therapeutic because they represent life’s big challenges and horses often require patients to learn new skills. It’s also thought that horses introduce a new element that can help therapists reach patients who struggle to make progress in a regular office setting.

The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association sets standards for programs that bring people and horses together in an effort to improve mental health. No riding is involved in EAGALA-certified programs and mental health professionals work with their patients to develop an individualized talk therapy plan. EAGALA also offers research papers that examine how horses can be beneficial in treating emotional problems in people.

Probably the best known program for bringing horses and people together in a therapeutic function is the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, founded in 1969. NARHA provides standards and accreditation for both therapeutic riding programs and equine-assisted talk therapy. According to NARHA, their accredited programs helped 40,000 participants in 2009 alone.

Most hippotherapy programs rely on volunteers and donations to help them continue their efforts. To make a difference, visit the NARHA site and search for a participating center near you.