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Why the Horse for Mental Health

According to Dr. Laurie Sullivan-Sakeada, a Utah based Clinical Psychologist and leading practitioner of equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP), horses are prey animals, and, like those who have been to war, rely on their heightened senses for survival.  They react to and mirror the emotions of visitors directly, without words.  Horses respond negatively to negative emotions.  They respond positively to positive emotions, and they have no ulterior motives.

“They are just there,” says Sakeada, “providing non-verbal feedback.”  The horses are therapeutic and interactive, thereby, speeding up the therapy process substantially.  Dr. Sakeada notes that one session of EAP in the barn is equal to five sessions “on the couch.”  


The learning and mastery of a new (horsemanship) skill--enhances participants' confidence in their ability to tackle new projects, such as recovery, and leads to improved self-esteem. 

Emotional Healing

Horses are used as partners in therapy for military veterans to gain self-understanding and emotional growth.  It recognizes the bond between animals and humans and the potential for emotional healing that can occur when a relationship is formed between the two species. In most cases, the horses are not ridden, and usually are not tethered in the arena, but allowed to roam free. Exercises can be as simple as giving the participants a halter, and letting them figure out how to approach the horse and put it on.

Social Skills

A positive relationship with a horse is often a first, safe step toward practicing the social skills needed to initiate closer relationships with people.


Communicating effectively with a horse requires the participant to demonstrate assertiveness, direction, and initiative; important skills that enable the participant to express their needs and rights more effectively in other relationships. 


Healing takes place as participants discover that groundwork and riding occurs within the context of a respectful relationship between a rider and a horse, and that, although physically powerful, each horse typically operates within the boundaries of this mutually respectful relationship. 

Impulse Modulation

Research clearly indicates that animal-assisted therapy reduces participant agitation and aggressiveness and increases cooperativeness and behavioral control.


Many participants are initially concerned that they will do something embarrassing while learning about or riding the horses. Yet participants quickly learn that the other participants are engaged in their own equine experiences, and they observe the comfort of the horses in their own skin. Fears of embarrassment in public are thereby often reduced and self-acceptance increased.

Decreasing Isolation

For many individuals with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, it can be an intrinsically isolating experience. The horse's unconditional acceptance invites participants back into the fellowship of life.

Anxiety Reduction

Many studies of human-animal interaction indicate that contact with animals significantly reduces physiological anxiety levels. Some participants are initially afraid of horses. But horses' genuineness and affection allay these fears, helping participants to embrace exposure therapy for their anxiety issues.


Learning to trust an animal such as a horse also aides in the development, or restoration, of trust for those whose ability to trust has been violated by difficult life experiences.


Horses' sensitivity to non-verbal communication assists participants in developing greater awareness of their emotions, the non-verbal cues that they may be communicating, and the important role of non-verbal communication in relationships.


Riding and groundwork helps participants to develop a more realistic view of themselves through awareness of their size in relation to the horse.


Learning to communicate and achieve harmony with a large animal promotes renewed feelings of efficacy. A motivated "I can do it!" replaces feelings of helplessness, de-motivation, by empowering the person to take on new challenges in other areas of recovery. 

1,200 Pounds of Lie Detector

Interpreting the horse’s body language, such as flicking ears, wide eyes, or a dropped shoulder provides biofeedback to the participant and instructor.  Horse behavior is non-verbal, yet they are always communicating. 

So....Why Horses?

Horses also possess a variety of “herd dynamics” such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another and grazing together.  In the process of describing the interactions between horses, participants can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.


Horses are highly reactive and mimic human emotions - requiring calm and non-reactive communications which promotes emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Working with horses in a therapeutic setting offers instant and constant feedback to participants, requires physical strength and balance, and is highly motivational – combining to make an exceptionally effective rehabilitation environment.

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Additional Discussion

“Like humans, horses are social animals, with defined roles within their herds. They have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods; an approach that works with one horse won’t necessarily work with

another, and with the same horse, may not work on other days. At times, they seem stubborn and defiant. They also like to have fun.


“Horses are not impressed with recovery-talk or good intentions. You must earn the trust and respect from a horse. Horses naturally pick up on internal struggles and they know immediately if we are not being "real" (Horses and


Whereas, dogs, the 2nd most common therapy animal, will love unconditionally, a horse and human relationship is built on mutual respect and trust, and deepens over time.

Many people who come, such as children from foster homes, have never had the experience of a human relationship like this so the horse connection becomes their first mutually respectful relationship. The horse teaches the person in this reciprocal relationship.

Most significantly, the horse is unique in its intuitive ability to mirror

human emotions. The horse is a prey animal who spends its entire life reading the environment for life-threatening danger. This gives the horse an amazing ability to read and reveal even subtle emotions allowing issues to be brought to light so they can now be discussed and progress made.

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