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As Mandrell (2006) highlights, Equine Facilitated Therapy (EFT) is the most recent adventure-based animal-assisted therapy where horses are used to facilitate the therapeutic process of patients with various disabilities. Unlike other animal-assisted therapies that focus on the animal-human relationship, EFT focuses on the experiences acquired by clients in the process of achieving the goals that have been set.
These experiences are aided by horse-related activities that are integrated into therapeutic sessions by a therapist to physically, emotionally, and mentally challenged patients. Horses are known to exhibit direct responses (respond emotionally), and therefore, participants have to make great psychological and physical adjustments to nurture relationships with horses.
This requires disabled individuals to develop physical abilities such as muscle control and mental constructs such as self-esteem. The physical abilities and mental constructs developed have a positive impact on the coping abilities of disabled individuals.
The Disability Statistics (2011) publication highlights that in 2000, over 54 million Americans were living with mental or physical disabilities. The figure has increased drastically, rendering more people disabled and unable to perform their daily functions. The recent EFT research findings as revealed by Debuse, Chandler & Gibb (2005) prove that EFT effectively complements medication given to patients with physical and mental disabilities such as spinal cord injury, autism, multiple sclerosis, ADHD and cerebral palsy.
To understand the ‘new hope’ that EFT has brought to patients with mental and physical disabilities, it is important that we look at how EFT works with physical and mental disabilities.
EFT planning and Preparation
Fine (2010) elaborates that EFT works via the collaborative efforts of the horseman and therapist (psychotherapists or psychologists). The practicability of EFT is dependent on an individual’s ability to interpret horse behavior. Horses differ in their focus-ability and temperament while individuals with mental and physical conditions are emotionally and physically disturbed hence making it difficult for disabled individuals to interpret horse behavior.
Therefore, a therapist has to model the behaviors and thoughts of an individual with the help of a horseman who knows the requirements of communicating to a horse effectively (forgiveness, consistency, patience, attention, and understanding) to ensure that an individual can interpret horse behavior. The outcome is a workable model that helps individuals respond positively to anxiety, anger, and fear while interacting with horses.
Additionally, during the planning and preparation process, the therapist and the horse professional modify the therapeutic space to include a broad environment (halters, bridles, arenas, hitching areas and bridles) that help individuals to interpret the behavior of the horse within its environment. The overall outcome is that manipulation of the horse environment by the therapist and horseman enhances how patients interact with horses and the environment.
As part of the preparation process, fun-based activities are created by the therapist and the horse professional before the beginning of the therapy sessions. As Mandrell (2006) puts across, fun-based activities are meant to reduce inhibitions, break barriers, and promote laughter. This helps individuals to relate well with horses and eradicate fears associated with EFT therapy such as loss of control, injury, and failure.
After breaking barriers and reducing inhibitions in physically and mentally disabled individuals, the therapist holds therapeutic sessions which are aimed at maximizing the therapeutic characteristics present in horses. Therapeutic sessions entail horse-related activities such as riding, handling, longing, grooming, and vaulting, among others. Such activities physically and mentally benefit disabled persons.
For instance, Janura, Peham, Dvorakova & Elfmar (2009) note that the repetitive movements of the horse that produce steady and rhythmic patterns, enable individuals with physical and mental disabilities such as cerebral palsy to actively learn how they can anticipate for postural changes. The overall effect is that the motions produced by a horse allow room for displacing the patient’s center of gravity, thus prompting balance and posture improvement.
This is ascertained by Casady & Nichols-Larsen (2004) who elaborate how horses stimulate balanced reactions and pelvic movements of individuals riding them, thus prompting the individuals to position themselves (adjust posture) while the horses are moving. Riding on a horse also enables an individual to learn new adaptive strategies and movements needed in maintaining the control of a dynamic or moving surface.
Additionally, when interacting with horses, individuals tend to use experimental behaviors such as visual examination and fine discrimination, among others, in a bid to examine how horses respond. This helps mentally and physically disabled individuals to self-manage their motor skills. Cumulatively, activities conducted in therapy sessions ensure that individuals improve their motor abilities through postural control, acquisition of motor skills, and increased strength that enables them to perform daily functional activities.
As individuals identify with horses, they can elicit their emotional responses, which tell more about their needs, wants, and behaviors. For instance, a mentally handicapped child leading a horse can elicit how she/he feels when guided or led by others. This is because the child is likely to set a horse free if she or he detests being guided/led by others. On the other hand, a child who appreciates being led/guided by others is likely to hold on to it most of the time.
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The responses help address psycho-social issues experienced by persons with mental/physical disabilities. Besides exhibiting individual responses, the individual-horse bond helps disabled individuals to develop affection, respect, confidence, unconditional acceptance, mutual trust, responsibility, self-control, communication skills, and assertiveness.
These qualities help mentally/physically disabled individuals to interact with other people unconditionally and also express themselves better. More so, individual-horse interaction effectively equips physically and mentally disabled persons with language and speech development, problem-solving abilities, and social skills that help them improve their coping ability(Fine, 2010).
Processing the experience
Processing experiences take place after completion of therapeutic sessions or in-between the therapeutic sessions. The experiences are processed to determine whether the EFT sessions are successful. To process experiences, Hallberg & Irwin (2008) note that the therapist holds dialogues and spends time with a mentally or physically disabled person. This helps to analyze an individual regarding whether the individual has been able to therapeutically benefit from the EFT depending on the kind of disability.
For instance, a therapist may analyze whether a person with spinal cord disability has had any muscle spasticity improvement while riding a horse or whether an individual with multiple sclerosis has made any progress in his or her postural stability.
Additionally, the therapist may find out whether an individual with both mental and physical disabilities have psychologically improved (self-confidence, self -esteem, and behavior-wise). If an individual has not made any progress, the therapist might either increase the therapy sessions, therapy duration or model the therapeutic setting to get improved results.
Besides acting as a control mechanism, processing the experience has other profound benefits to the disabled persons. Fine (2010) states that talking about what is happening with mentally and physically disabled patients help patients focus on issues before an event, promote change during experiences, and reinforce change perceptions.
This is because the patients are motivated to express and reflect on their feelings and thoughts during their experiences, thus creating awareness of how they behaved and what they thought during their experiences. This enables patients to acquire new knowledge concerning the desired attitude/behavior. For instance, an ADHD patient who fails to finish grooming a horse can easily identify why she fails; due to impatience (could not withstand the one-hour required for grooming).
To make the individual more patient, the therapist could suggest that the patient pay more attention to how the horse feels rather than how long the process takes; how caressing the horse with a sponge and water, scrapping off excess water using sweat scraper, ragging it up and walking it until it is dry will make the horse more appreciative.
Conclusively, we can see that EFT, an adventurous animal-assisted therapy incorporating horses as therapeutic tools work by improving the coping capabilities of individuals with physical and mental disabilities. This is made possible by the collaborative efforts of the therapist and horseman who work together to develop an emotionally responsive model as well as a therapeutic setting that helps the mentally/physically disabled individuals to interact effectively with horses.
They must hold the ‘breaking barrier’ activities to eradicate fears before the therapeutic sessions start. The activities put patients at ease, a prerequisite for deriving maximum benefits from the therapy sessions. Processing experiences act as a control mechanism that ensures individuals cognitively and physically improve as planned. Cumulatively, these processes make EFT effective therapy for improving the coping abilities of mentally and physically disabled persons.
Casady, R. L., & Nichols-Larsen, D. S. (2004). The effect of hippotherapy on ten children with cerebral palsy. Pediatric Physical Therapy, 16, 165-172.
Debuse, D., Chandler, C., & Gibb, C. (2005). An exploration of German and British physiotherapists’ views on the effects of hippotherapy and their measurement. Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, 21, 219-242.
Disability Statistics. (2011). Disability statistics. US disability Statistics. Web.
Fine, A. H. (2010). Handbook on animal-assisted therapy: Theoretical foundations and guidelines for practice. California, CA: Academic Press.
Hallberg, L., & Irwin, C. (2008).Walking the way of the horse: Exploring the power of the horse-human relationship. London, LDN: iUnivers.
Janura, M., Peham, C., Dvorakova, T., & Elfmar, M. (2009). An assessment of the pressure distribution exerted by a rider on the back of a horse during hippotherapy. Human Movement Sciences, 28, 387-393.
Mandrell, P.J. (2006). Introduction to equine-assisted psychotherapy. Virginia, VA: Xulon Press