Veterans Equine Assisted Therapy Program

What is the Veterans Equine Assisted Therapy Program?

Equine assisted psychotherapy is an emerging form of therapeutic intervention in which horses are used as tools for clients to gain self-understanding and emotional growth. Equine assisted psychotherapy is a type of animal assisted therapy, a field of mental health that 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.

Our Equine Assisted Therapy Program involves equine activities set up and facilitated by a licensed mental health professional and a horse professional. These activities are most often performed on the ground (rather than riding), and include such things as grooming, feeding, haltering and leading the horse. During the process of working with the horse, the therapist and veteran engage in talk therapy, processing feelings, behaviors and patterns. The ultimate goal for the client is to build skills such as personal responsibility, assertiveness, non-verbal communication, self-confidence, and self-control.

Why use horses for therapy? One reason is because horses need a lot of care. A veteran can put aside his or her own troubles in the immediate job of caring for the horse. Horses are large and strong, which challenges a person to overcome his fear in order to work with the animal. Horses mirror moods, too; they respond negatively to negative emotions, teaching the veteran that his behavior can affect others, and making it necessary to modify behavior in order to work successfully with the animal.

Much can be learned from simply observing horse behavior. Horses can be stubborn or defiant, playful or moody. They have a variety of "herd dynamics" such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another, and grazing together. In the process of describing the horse and the interactions between the horses, clients can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.

Equine assisted therapy is thought to be an effective short-term therapeutic approach for both individuals and families, addressing a number of mental health problems, including behavioral issues, depression and anxiety, low self esteem, eating disorders, ADD/ADHD, post traumatic stress disorder, and relationship problems. While there is a need for research to support anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of Equine assisted psychotherapy, this type of animal assisted therapy is slowly gaining support among mental health professionals.

We welcome any veteran suffering from an emotional issue to come to one of our events. Volunteers are always welcome to assist with our program.

Benefits of Equine Therapy

Animal-assisted therapy has shown evidenced-based efficacy in patients including war veterans with PTSD, depression, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorders, dissociative disorders, and other chronic mental illnesses.

In light of research and observational findings, experts suggest that Equine Therapy a common form of animal-assisted therapy--may yield a variety of psychotherapeutic benefits.  The attempt of this program is to help instill the following coping skills in veterans.

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

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 and motivation, empowering the person to take on challenges in other areas of recovery.

Riding helps patients to develop a more realistic view of themselves through awareness of their size in relation to the horse. This is especially important in treating patients with eating disorders as well as those with interpersonal aggression problems.

Horses' sensitivity to non-verbal communication assists patients 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.

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 such as physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, or marital infidelity.

Through grooming activities and other types of care for a specific horse, patients are able to put aside the absorbing focus of their mental illness, such as depressive ruminations, and instead to direct their attention and interests outwardly toward safe and caring interactions.

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

Decreasing Isolation:
For many individuals with mental illness, there is a long-term or recent history of feeling rejected by, and different from, other people. Mental illnesses are intrinsically isolating experiences. The horse's unconditional acceptance invites patients back into the fellowship of life.

Many patients are initially concerned that they will do something embarrassing while learning about or riding the horses. Yet patients 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.

Impulse Modulation:
Particularly for those whose mental illness involves the experience of lost control over impulses, the need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively promotes the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Research clearly indicates that animal-assisted therapy reduces patient agitation and aggressiveness and increases cooperativeness and behavioral control.

Social Skills:
Many individuals with mental illness are socially isolated or withdrawn. 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 rider to demonstrate assertiveness, direction, and initiative, important skills that enable the patient to express her needs and rights more effectively in other relationships.

Many patients have experienced prior relationships as controlling or abusive. Healing takes place as patients discover that 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.

Creative Freedom:
Many people with mental illness have been emotionally inhibited or over-controlled, and have lost some measure of spontaneity. The playful aspects of riding and team equine activities can help restore spontaneity and ability for healthy recreation and play.

For information on scheduling an appointment at Stepping Stone Farms, please contact Lia Sader at 414 379 2314 or e-mail This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


Photo Essay: Horses for Heroes

by Martha McNiel, LMFT, TRI, CEIP-MH
DreamPower Horsemanship
Gilroy, CA

Click on here to see the essay.

1439 92nd Street

Franksville, WI 53126



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