What Are Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAAT): Definition and 5 Important Uses
Equine assisted activities and therapy (EAA/T) are the practice of using horses and the farm environment as a form of rehabilitative therapy for individuals with all kinds of life challenges. I work at INTRA, the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association, a non-profit organization that specializes in providing top of the line EAA/T to individuals and groups from vulnerable and marginalized populations. One of our most frequently asked questions is what are equine assisted activities and therapy? What’s the benefit and what is it used for? Today we’ll dive into just that and look at some success stories. So let’s discover what equine assisted activities and therapy are together with different uses of it.
1. Equine Assisted Activities and Therapy is not just riding
Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapy (EAA/T) can be used in many different ways. Many people assume that therapy with a horse just means riding. But actually, EAA/T goes far deeper than that. Equine assisted activities can include therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, ground-work, carriage driving, ranch assistance, equine-assisted learning, and interactive vaulting. These different activities are utilized according to each client’s therapy needs. At INTRA, we create individualized treatment programs that incorporate physical, social, or emotional rehabilitative goals.
2. What Is Hippotherapy? Wait, did you just say hippos?
The hippo in hippotherapy actually means horse! This form of EAA/T is used by physical therapists,occupational therapists, and speech/language pathologists to address impairments, functional limitations, and disabilities in clients with neuromotor, developmental and/or sensory dysfunction. Using this technique, the therapist modifies the horse's movement and carefully grades sensory input, establishing a foundation for improved neurological function and sensory processing with the client. This also consists of aerobic activity, stimulating in clients a strong sense of mobility, power, and control. In this therapy, riding skills are not the main focus, but rather a foundation is established to improve neurological function and sensory processing.
This foundation is then generalized to a wide range of daily activities to increase independence and day-to-day function. For example, this kind of equine assisted activity greatly benefits clients with paralysis or muscular dystrophy disorders who are wheelchair-bound. Imagine what it’s like for a person who cannot walk to successfully sit astride a horse, and maintain an upright position. For body and soul, it’s a revelation.
3. Definition of Therapeutic Riding
Beyond hippotherapy, therapeutic riding is a central tenet of EAA/T. This practice utilizes horses to improve physical, emotional, social, cognitive, and behavioral measures of people who have disabilities or psychological challenges. Therapeutic riding focuses on the acquisition of riding skills and the development of a meaningful relationship between horse and rider as part of the rehabilitative process. The joint effect of physical and emotional work is especially meaningful. For example, at INTRA we work with many children and youth coping with learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders. In therapeutic riding, these children discover a healthy and exhilarating physical outlet, while simultaneously developing a sense of self-competence and worth of which they are in great need.
4. What is Equine-Assisted Learning?
Alongside therapy needs, equine-assisted learning is also a very meaningful equine-assisted activity. This means building the equine relationship with an intentional approach to develop life skills, self-awareness, and personal growth - for anyone! By developing concrete riding and horse-care skills along with building the horse-human bond, an individual becomes aware of their own behavior, temperament, challenges, and mood. This awareness allows for growth and modification.
At INTRA for example, we focus on equine-assisted learning with youth at-risk who have learning disabilities or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These teens have had adverse childhoods with very negative academic experiences, limiting their opportunities for growth. We utilize equine-assisted learning to rebuild their sense of competence, emotion regulation, impulse control, and confidence, which in turn fuels their ability to fulfill their potential again outside the ranch too. We have participants who have successfully completed high school against all odds thanks to their equine-assisted learning.
5. The importance of ground work at therapeutic riding: The Gateway for relationships
Riders often begin the therapeutic process with “ground work”. Ground work is all about the basics of getting to know your horse and learning to care for it. The first part of EAA/T is creating a relationship with your horse. Horses are highly intelligent, social, sensitive, and responsive creatures! Caring for them, learning about their equipment, or “tack”, is an essential part of the therapeutic relationship and process.
Therapy sessions involving ground-work establish boundaries and trust between client and horse, under the facilitation of a therapeutic riding instructor. For example, the first session can sometimes be all about how to enter the horse’s stall, and how to approach the horse. Why does this matter? Because developing the human-horse bond is in itself therapeutic, contributing to participants’ capacity to improve their social skills with other people as well. So if at first it seems like things are moving slowly, it’s because taking the time to build that relationship is the ticket to progress.