Treating Disordered Eating with Equine Therapy

Woman enjoying equine therapy and her True Self

Equine therapy is a type of animal-assisted therapy (AAT), in which horses are deliberately included in one’s treatment plan. Generally, combining equine therapy and eating disorder treatment involves a credentialed treatment provider who guides interactions between the individual in recovery and an animal to realize specific recovery goals.

That is, the introduction of a horse is designed to accomplish predefined outcomes believed to be difficult to achieve otherwise or outcomes best addressed through exposure to a horse. [1]

AAT, including, equine-assisted therapy, is thought to offer the following physical, emotional, and social benefits: [1, 2, 3]

  • Decrease stress
  • Decrease difficult or unwanted emotions like anger, anxiety, and depression
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Increase emotional and relational comfort
  • Increase feelings of protection and safety
  • Support identity reformation
  • Increase social interactions, decrease loneliness
  • Lower blood pressure and heart rate levels
  • Lower blood pressure increases following stress-inducing tasks and quicker post-stressful-task recovery times
  • Build feelings of empowerment
  • Increase positive social interaction skills
  • Boost therapy attendance
  • Allows for new opportunities to regulate affect
  • Allows for attachment or relational healing
  • Helps tolerate distress (e.g., increased mindfulness, distraction from distressing thoughts or emotions, self-soothing by petting animal)
  • Increase self-awareness

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Due to these benefits, it’s easy to see how equine therapy can support one’s eating disorder recovery. Eating disorders are about so much more than weight or appearance — they often involve deeply felt emotions as well as deep feelings of acceptance, belonging, safety, and connection.

So, for a person in eating disorder treatment, equine-assisted therapy may offer an opportunity to do this deeper healing.

Through equine-assisted therapy, those in recovery are able to discover that the horse offers an opportunity to build a relationship without the fear of judgment or shame. The relationship with the horse is founded on safety and acceptance. This allows the individual in recovery to better know and understand themselves and move toward self-acceptance. [3, 4]

Girl working on Equine Therapy and Eating DisordersHorses engage with humans only when the human is fully present. So, if the individual in recovery begins to slip into their internal world, the horse will disengage. This allows the individual in recovery to practice moving away from eating disorder thoughts and towards the present moment and the relationship. [3, 4]

In other words, equine-assisted therapy allows for those struggling with eating disorders to rebuild relationships — with themselves and with others. [4]

Due to the promising benefits of equine-assisted therapy and the deep healing opportunity it offers, it seems to be growing in popularity, and more treatment centers are beginning to incorporate equine-assisted therapy into their programming.


Sources:

[1] Nimer, J., & Lundahl, B.W. (2007). Animal-Assisted Therapy: A Meta-Analysis, Anthrozoös, 20:3, 225-238, DOI: 10.2752/089279307X224773
[2] Wisdom, J. P., Saedi, G. A., & Green, C. A. (2009). Another breed of “service” animals: STARS study findings about pet ownership and recovery from serious mental illness. The American journal of orthopsychiatry, 79(3), 430–436. doi:10.1037/a0016812
[3] Fischette, P. F. (2010). Snapshot Two: AAI and Eating Disorders. In Fine, A. H. Handbook on Animal-Assisted Therapy: Theoretical Foundations and Guidelines, 3rd ed.
[4] Dorotik-Nana, C. (2012). Why Equine Therapy Works for Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/2012/09/why-equine-therapy-works-for-eating-disorders/


About Our Sponsor:

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Fairhaven Treatment Center is a leading eating disorder treatment center that provides treatment for adult women and adolescent girls struggling with Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED).

Fairhaven specializes in working with eating disorders with co-occurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and attachment disorder, and a history of addiction and substance use disorder.


About the Author:

Chelsea Fielder-JenksChelsea Fielder-Jenks is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Chelsea works with individuals, families, and groups primarily from a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) framework.

She has extensive experience working with adolescents, families, and adults who struggle with eating, substance use, and various co-occurring mental health disorders. You can learn more about Chelsea and her private practice at ThriveCounselingAustin.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 a 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.

Published on November 21, 2019,  on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 21, 2019, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.