Equine-assisted Therapy at Koru Spring
"We have a wonderful partnership with a local ranch that specializes in equine therapy using the Eagala model. You can really see the residents start to open up as soon as they begin interacting with the horses. It’s a wonderful experience that our residents really look forward to."- Koru Spring Team

Equine therapy, also called hippotherapy, or horse therapy is a powerful experiential therapy based on the bond that can form between human and horse. Although you may be more familiar with assistance dogs or emotional support animals, horses offer a unique therapeutic experience due to their high sensitivity to human emotions. Individuals with mental health disorders, such as an eating disorder (ED), can engage with therapy horses to improve their mental health and help them overcome certain challenges that they may be facing. Equine-assisted therapy is one of the many experiential therapies offered to residents in treatment at Koru Spring. 

The Eagala Model for Equine-assisted Therapy

It is important to understand that, although human-animal interaction can be healing in and of itself, equine-assisted therapy at Koru Spring is more than visiting a horse ranch or petting horses. While both of those do happen, specialists in equine-assisted learning require intensive training and board certification with Eagala (Equine-assisted Growth and Learning Association). The Eagala Model is based on the belief that all individuals can be empowered by therapeutic experiences that encourage exploration, discovery, and problem-solving in a safe a supportive space.  


Equine-assisted Therapy for Eating Disorders at Koru Spring 

Equine-assisted therapy sessions at Koru Spring form part of a holistic and integrative therapeutic program for recovery from eating disorders. Its role within our treatment program is to supplement our evidence-based program and help individuals explore real-life challenges under the care of their therapist and Eagala-certified equine specialists, such as Pamela Dent. As Equine Specialist and Executive Director of Round Pen Ranch, Dent has over 30 years of experience with horses, horse behaviors, animal husbandry, herdsmanship and natural horsemanship and has trained with some of the leading clinical experts in equine therapy.  

As such, equine therapy is always considered a group session. Regardless of the number of Koru Spring residents present, sessions will always include the equine specialist, a mental health professional and the horses, who are, of course, integral team members. These horses are not ridden or harnessed, and all the exercises and activities are “groundwork”. The horses are not to be controlled, but engaged with. The horses can react to and move around participants freely, which encourages introspection from the moment an individual joins the herd. Questions like “Why did this horse react to me in this way?” or “What does my body language say to others?” can be explored in ways that other therapies would not be able to. 

Why Horses are Perfect for Therapy 

Horses are honest, non-judgmental and react in “real-time”. The horses’ behaviors and reactions are similar to those of their human counterparts and can give the team and the individual valuable insights. These reactions can bring up a variety of feelings, but the team will always be there to help residents work through and explore these emotions.  

How the individual works through or overcomes challenges in this herd environment can also be a great way to build skills and gain confidence. The horses are honest, so good feedback is genuine and well-earned by the individuals and the group. We can be confident in this assertion, because neuroscience supports it. Horses have no frontal lobes nor a prefrontal cortex. In human beings, one of the tasks our frontal lobes are involved in is learned social responses. For example, we might reflexively say “Fine, thanks, and you?” when others ask how we are, without feeling “fine” or reflecting on how we feel before answering. Horses don’t have those learned social “niceties”, so they will act exactly as they feel.  

The prefrontal cortex also hosts executive functioning, for example, the ability to plan or reason before doing something. As horses can’t do this, they have no “hidden agendas” and always act based on their perception of a person or thing as safe or not.  Horses are highly sensitive to their surroundings and can quickly pick up on any inconsistencies or incongruences in a person’s behavior. This means that individuals participating must develop clear and assertive communication skills, set boundaries and establish trust-based relationships. 

Treatment Goals for Equine-assisted Therapy 

Equine-assisted learning requires the individual to assess their goals for the session and for their treatment and constantly re-evaluate them as they gain insight and build skills. Common challenges that individuals and groups can work through in equine therapy include: 

  • Relationship building 
  • Communication skills  
  • Self-awareness 
  • Caring for themselves  
  • Empathizing with others 
  • Non-verbal communication  
  • Coping with grieving or loss 

Individuals may feel anxiety because they have never interacted with horses or don’t know what to expect in a session. No prior experience of working with animals or special skillsets are required. One of the joys of equine therapy is that it is, like many experiential therapies, quite spontaneous. Prepare to be as authentic and open as possible and the rest will be covered in real-time by the team. 

Equine-assisted therapy aims to improve mental health, encourage recovery, prevent relapse and perhaps even help to find a new source of comfort and joy or a new interest. Experiences from each session can be expanded upon to help build lasting skills that are transferable and applicable to a diverse range of life’s challenges.