DAILY / MAY 6, 2018  
Psychiatric News Update

Equine Therapy Can Benefit Patients With Anxiety, Depression, and More

Horse and rider
For centuries, “hippotherapy,” or treatment with the help of a horse, has been used to help patients suffering from a variety of illnesses from neurological disorders to low morale, as depression was known in Europe the 17th century.

Dana Spett, M.S.W., a lifelong equestrian and special education teacher, discovered equine therapy when her young daughter, who has mild special needs, began to struggle to make progress despite utilizing traditional therapies. Looking for something that would help, Spett earned her certification in equine therapy and, buoyed by her successes, founded a small therapeutic riding facility. Pony Power Therapies in Mahwah, N.J., has since expanded into a center spreading over 12 acres with 22 rescued or donated horses and serving 180 clients a week.

Psychiatrist Diego L. Coira, M.D., has been riding horses all his life, so he knows firsthand how beneficial it is. For the past two years, he has been helping patients obtain benefit from equine therapy and collecting data on the results. Most of the 50 patients he has studied have a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or substance use disorder.

“We’re seeing patient benefits in mood, cognition, balance, and socialization,” he said at the session “Equine Therapy: Achieving Well-being with a Centuries Old Tool.” One patient, a 20-year-old woman who was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, presented with symptoms of excessive worry, cognitive distortions, and generalized anxiety. She was taking escitalopram and valium and doing individualized cognitive-behavioral therapy. After an eight-week equine therapy program, her symptoms improved significantly, he said. After another 16 weeks of equine therapy, she was gradually able to go off her medications.

Some patients work on the ground with the horses, petting or grooming them, whereas others ride with assistance. Coira explained that horses chosen for equine therapy are calm, even tempered, and gentle and walk at a safe gait; they are typically older horses.

Pony Power works with clients who are 2 to 84 years old and have a wide range of diagnoses. He explained that horses are nonjudgmental: race, religion, socioeconomics, and diagnosis have no meaning to them. Instead, horses interpret and reflect the energy and body language of the people they are meeting. That makes patients pay attention to nonverbal cues. Equine therapy can be particularly helpful for patients with autism who are learning to modulate their body language and voice to be calmer when interacting with people. “Horses are wonderful teachers of paying attention and conveying that the rider’s decisions have an effect,” she added.

Pony Power Therapies, a nonprofit organization, has received grant funding to provide free treatment for patients who cannot afford to pay. For others, the fee is $80 for a half-hour session, and it is not covered by insurance, Spett said.

Ultimately, horses are a bridge to the natural world, and they connect people to nature, Spett said. For example, they don’t tolerate smartphones. She believes that equine therapy can be a positive adjunct to whatever type of therapy psychiatrists prescribe.

(Image: iStock/Chalabala)


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