Rehab Horses Rehab Humans

The December 1, 2008, issue of The New Yorker includes a Letter from Hollywood  piece by Amanda Fortini, entitled “Special Treatment:  The Rise of Luxury Rehab.”  

In Fortini’s semi-snarky profile of the Wonderland Center—a private alcohol-and-drug rehab facility in West Hollywood, California—there is this bit about “equine-assisted psychotherapy” (an offering at many high-end treatment centers):” 

The therapy is said to have originated in a treatment developed in Denmark in the nineteen-fifties; horseback riding, or hippotherapy, was believed to alleviate the physical effects of diseases like cerebral palsy and polio. Today, the idea seems to be that simply being around a horse can confer psychological benefits, and that horses can reveal a patient’s unexpressed emotional states—reacting to feelings of fear or anxiety or aggression by whinnying, say, or by stamping their hooves. “Horses are able to read energy,” [Wonderland’s co-founder Bernadine] Fried told me, as we brushed a palomino gelding named Chex. “They are incredible therapists. I let them show me what’s going on with a person.”

Hippotherapy, a “physical, occupational and speech therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement,” has been around in some form since ancient Greece.  It enjoyed a renewal in the 1960’s, and since then has demonstrated its value in alleviating the physical effects of conditions such as cerebral palsy, brain injury, autism and multiple sclerosis.  Parents and practitioners testify to improvements in balance, coordination and ability to learn.  Hippotherapy is a board-certified, clinical specialty of physical therapy.  It is not equivalent to horseback riding although it does involve riding horses (as opposed to walking, grooming or observing horses).

Many horses employed in hippotherapy programs are themselves rescued and rehabilitated from other lives so it is often a case of a rehabbed horse helping to rehab a human.

Hippotherapy is a subgroup of “equine assisted therapy,” the umbrella term for any therapy–whether physical or psychological–that incorporates horses into treatment.  Another subgroup is “equine assisted psychotherapy,” the therapy that Fortini gently mocks in her piece as the practice of  interpreting the “whinnying” or “stamping” of horses to reveal “unexpressed emotional states” of humans.

According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), an organization that is attempting to standardize certification and training in this area, equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP), 

incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning.  It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals.

EAP–unlike hippotherapy–rarely includes horseback riding, but does involve a licensed therapist and a horse (or several horses).  Practitioners believe that horses are uniquely suited to assisting psychotherapists in a “short term” or “brief” therapy because they are large and powerful animals (any fear, anger or aggression issues surface pretty quickly), because they are social animals (like human beings), because they require the human to do some work (you can’t just sit there on a folding chair and daydream) and because they have an uncanny ability to mirror human beings.   

Do horses mirror us?  

Do they “listen” and “understand” our “unexpressed emotional states?”  

Do horses “read energy” or are they simply reacting to changes in their environment, as “prey” animals are hardwired to do?

Are horses keen observers of humans in the way oppressed groups observe their oppressors and captives their jailers (do wild horses also mirror humans)? 

Is my horse an “incredible therapist” telling me something about my emotional state, or is this a case where a hoof stamp is “just a cigar?”

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