Horses could be the key to treating PTSD, new study suggests


When you picture a psychiatrist or therapist, you probably imagine someone in finely pressed clothes and spectacles sitting on a chair and quietly taking notes. What you likely don't think of is a proud stallion galloping through fields or calmly trotting beside a human.

And you're likely to imagine the patient lying down rather than sitting up on horseback.And you're likely to imagine the patient lying down rather than sitting up on horseback.

Yet according to some recent research, more than just serving as physical labor when human hands can't do the trick, horses could also serve as healing, helping hands (or hoofs) when it comes to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in youth.

Data collected by researchers that is yet to be published found that posttraumatic stress symptoms among teens and children tended to lessen when they received what is known as equine-facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) along with their regular treatment. These results could open up a whole new way of treating PTSD – not to mention a whole new way to think about horses.

This time, the horses whisper

As part of the experiment, participants aged 8 to 18 in a therapeutic treatment facility were put into an EFP program and went to 10 weekly sessions. All of them were asked to fill out a survey at three points: the start of the program, its middle and end.

[T]he rhythmic motion of riding a horse can facilitate focus and relaxation for riders, allowing for more effective therapy

The resulting connection between man and animal correlated with a decrease in PTSD symptoms for those in the program, particularly when compared to youth who continued their treatment as normal. As the researchers made clear in their proposal for the experiment that finding new ways to beat back the specter of PTSD and similar problems is becoming more and more important. This is especially true, given that a large amount of young people experience emotional and behavioral disorders. 

Horses: Scourge of PTSD?

According to researchers, one-fifth of all youth, or between 7.7 and 12.8 million, experience a serious mental health problem at some point. Meanwhile, 14-25 percent of young people are slated to suffer "at least one major depressive episode before adulthood".

And unfortunately, PTSD is especially difficult to treat because of the difficulty of parsing it from other conditions. This is particularly tough when it comes to young people, who don't have the experience to either comprehend or express what they're feeling.

The results of this study, the researchers hope, will provide a new avenue for doctors wanting to help troubled youth.

Equine therapy goes back a ways

While horses' usefulness in the area of PTSD is new, equine therapy has been giving new meaning to the term "horse health care" for some time now.

Horses are used to helping humans with everything from physical rehabilitation and cognitive development to speech problems. Back in 1969, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (now PATH Intl.) was founded to promote horseback riding as a form of physical and mental therapy. Before that, some point to the fact that even some Ancient Greek writers were talking up the therapeutic benefits of horses, according to Equestrian Therapy.

All of this begs the question: What is it about horses that makes them so therapeutic?

According to numerous studies, the rhythmic motion of riding a horse can facilitate focus and relaxation for riders, allowing for more effective therapy. At the same time, interacting with horses helps patients develop sensory input and nonverbal communication. Beyond this, the process of learning and mastering a new skill can imbue a patient with much-needed self-confidence.

Who knows? Today, it's horses' usefulness in treating PTSD, tomorrow, researchers could find a whole new therapeutic function for our equine allies.