Horses and humans have had a special bond for thousands of years, and this connection can go much further than work and sports. The gentleness of horses makes them great companions and therapy animals, especially for those with learning disabilities, in something called equine facilitated education and therapy (EFET).
EFET involves using horse care and riding to help develop various skills, from social skills and confidence to physical health and wellbeing. The best part is, riding the horse isn't always necessary to get the benefits. There are so many other aspects of horse care to take part in, from grooming to feeding, so it's perfect for anyone who has an interest — even if they've never ridden a horse before.
Whether you'd like to give EFET a go yourself, or you know someone who loves horses, below I've listed five key benefits of equine therapy, as well as my advice for getting started.
Increases physical health
It’s no surprise that horse riding can be great exercise. Not only does it help boost cardiovascular health and burn calories, but it's also great for developing balance, coordination, and motor skills. Sitting on the horse as it moves requires the work of many muscle groups in the legs and core to maintain stabilised, which can help build muscle control and increase range of motion.
In fact, horse riding consumes enough energy for it to meet public health guidelines for moderate-intensity activity, meaning it can provide a range of health benefits, according to research from the British Horse Society. And, as the exercise takes place from a seated position, it's especially beneficial for those who may have difficulty getting exercise in other forms. Even stable activities like grooming, mucking out, and tacking up can get the blood pumping and help develop fine motor skills.
The responsibility of taking care of a horse can help to boost confidence, according to a study published in the journal Anthrozoös. For those with learning disabilities, even simple tasks such as feeding and watering a horse can help provide a sense of independence. The horse's reliance on care is a great motivating factor to keep going. Plus, the sense of pride that comes with achieving riding accomplishments and developing skills can really help to boost self-esteem.
Not only can horse riding help boost confidence, but it could also reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. A study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress surveyed 16 volunteers who had experienced a traumatic event and had PTSD symptoms as a result. After six weeks of equine-assisted therapy, participants reported fewer symptoms of generalized anxiety and depression, suggesting that horse therapy is effective at improving mental health.
For one, being in the great outdoors and enjoying the companionship of an animal can help to improve mood, and the feeling of the horse beneath the saddle while riding can have plenty of soothing benefits. What's more, horse riding and care involves a lot of repetition, which makes it great for those who feel more at ease with routine. Horses are also naturally calm and quiet animals, which makes EFET a great option for people who get overstimulated easily.
Improves cognitive function
Horse riding and care can take a lot of concentration to develop the necessary skills and overcome challenges, meaning horse therapy could provide an extra learning boost. In fact, therapeutic horse riding has been found to improve cognitive function and vocabulary in children with autism spectrum disorder or an intellectual disability, according to a study published in the journal Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine. Not only does the concentration of riding provide benefits, but riding students can also develop numeracy skills when weighing out feed, as well as literacy skills by reading instructions or learning the names of each horse.
Develops social skills
EFET can also help to improve social skills. Whether it's by working with a therapist, riding instructor, or a team of other riders, there are plenty of opportunities to socialise with other people. Horses are also great for boosting confidence in social settings. Animals are non-judgemental, and many people find talking to them much easier than talking to other people.
Working with horses can help develop feelings of empathy too. Feeding, grooming, and riding all require the rider to anticipate the horse's needs and emotions, a skill that can easily be transferred to the wider world. Horses are also great at tuning into and responding to their rider, which can make communication much easier for those who may find it difficult to express themselves accurately, as well as help the rider understand their own social cues better (ResearchGate).
How can you get started?
If EFET sounds like something you want to try, or if someone you know is keen to get started, then you'll be pleased to know that this kind of therapy is available to people of all ages. All you'll need to do is find an equine therapist near you. The easiest way to do this is by using an online directory such as Counselling Directory, where you can search your location, type of therapy, and any accessibility preferences you may need. Or, you can search online for equine facilitated learning and therapy near you.
Alternatively, you could consider enrolling yourself or a loved one at a specialist college, such as the Fortune Centre of Riding Therapy, which helps young people with learning disabilities live as independently as possible using equine therapy.
Horse riding has so many benefits. Not only can it be a fantastic form of exercise, but it can also help improve motor skills, cognitive function, and social skills, as well as boost self-esteem and mental health. The best part is there's a form of equine facilitated learning and therapy for everyone. So, whether it's the excitement of riding or the responsibility of horse care that interests you or your loved one, all that's needed is a passion for horses to get started!
Katie Allen-Clarke, Horse & Country TV