Learning to Connect with Equine Therapy

Woman participating in Equine Therapy

Contributor: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS

Equine therapy can be a powerful tool in relational therapy and body image work with eating disorders. Many residential centers have adopted equine therapy as a part of their therapeutic process.

The Process

Grooming, petting or soothing touch and contact with horses can impact client’s experiences and relationships. Equine therapy is a nonverbal communication and allows for a deep experience where clients need the sense of physical touch for support.

When individuals work with horses, the horses naturally transfer their ways of being in the herd to being around us. Individuals will then naturally mimic these acts of affection when they groom and pet the horses. When horses see people as safe, the connection and relationship between the horse and the human deepens.

When clients walk, lead, ride, and train with horses, they do so in relationship. The relationship is a multi-step process. This starts with the client and horse coming into contact. Horses are significantly attuned to human emotions.

The second step in this process is the client keeping their emotions congruent when with the horse. They horse will pick up on the client’s emotions and react accordingly. This can help the client become more mindful of their emotions and regulate them. Horses can, in return, they offer clients a nonjudgmental, honest feedback and teach them how to be more aware of their connections between mind, body, and emotions through breath and body sensations.

This allows for the opportunity to make contact with the self and the environment and to relate to others in a different way. The relational nature of horses can help facilitate the healing process for those suffering from eating disorders [1].

Learning from Horses

Equine Assisted Therapy (EAP) typically involves caring for the horse. The client and therapist work together with a horse professional to groom, exercise, and feed the animal. A healthy diet is also an important component of keeping a horse at peak performance level, and the same is true of humans.

Horse eating out of woman's hand during equine therapy This can be an indirect and non-threatening way to get a client with an eating disorder to begin connecting to the importance of eating well. Conversations about healthy exercise and diet for the horse can begin beneficial conversations about the same needs in humans between the client and therapist.

Horses are sensitive to non-verbal cues and can mirror the moods and attitudes we convey with our body language. This can help a client become aware of negative body language, and begin discussing the feelings and their causes with their therapist. The horse acts as a large biofeedback machine, providing the client and the therapist with information regarding the client’s moods and changes within those moods.

If a client arrives anxious the horse will act and respond one way. If the client is able to reduce
his or her anxiety, the horse’s behaviours will also change. This provides significant skill building opportunities for both the client and the therapist [2].

The Benefits of Equine Therapy

There are several benefits to using equine therapy within the work on eating disorders. These are improved self-esteem and confidence, reduced anxiety, increased relational skills, improved communication and boundary settings, teamwork, success planning and completions of tasks, increased self-discipline and responsibility, improved empathy and respect for others and emotional regulation [3].

Girl kissing horse during equine therapyEAP can provide insight for observation and growth by understanding how clients interact with people and this can improve clients own self-awareness in this process. EAP can also offer instant insight into client’s thoughts and feelings even before the client is aware of them. EAP also can offer fostering of healthy relationship through a nonjudgmental relationship that can help clients reframe and improve their body image.

EAP can also work to improve trust within clients. Horses can improve the feelings of trust and connection through horses, which can be translated to that of humans [4]. Through this work, clients are able to connect to living in a way that reduces their fear of rejection or criticism from others, which often can keep client from moving forward in the recovery process.

Equine Assisted Therapy is way for clients to bond, build, trust, challenge negative thinking around body image, acceptance, and self-acceptance within the eating disorder recovery processes. Horses, who are naturally heard animals, are constantly looking to form bonds and relationships. This can be with horses and people [5].

Equine Therapy can be a powerful tool in therapy and work with clients. It can provide immediate feedback, and open conversation within the therapy process. It can be a powerful tool for clients who have difficulty with trust in treatment teams, who struggle with interpersonal relationships, or struggle with recovery.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

How has equine therapy impacted your recovery? What connections have you made and what did you learn through this process?

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons, MSW, LCSW, CEDS is a specialist in the eating disorder field. Libby has been treating eating disorders for 10 years within the St. Louis area, and enjoys working with individuals of all ages.


[1]: Retrieved 3/15/16. www.psychcentral.com
[2]: Retrieved 3/15/16. http://www.pathintl.org
[3]: Retrieved 3/15/16. www.cnn.com

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 26, 2016
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com

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