Aside from beloved dogs and cats, research has shown that immersing yourself with other types of creatures, especially horses, can have healing effects on your emotional and mental health — just ask Britney Spears!
The pop star has been going through a lot as her conservatorship case continues to make headlines, and in a recent post on Instagram she opened up about her personal process of finding balance.
“I’ve never shared this because it's embarrassing as I'm supposed to be a fearless performer,” the singer said alongside a picture of an adorable pic. “I also used to spend time with horses doing equine therapy a few days a week to ease my social anxiety.”
She continued, “I find spending time with animals like this peaceful pig to be very therapeutic. I do think it helps when I hear about other people who experience the same thing. It makes me feel like I'm not alone.”
Indeed, she's not, as equine therapy is a well-studied practice that helps many.
What is equine therapy?
Through this modality, mental health professionals guide a person through activities with horses, and can include riding, guiding, grooming, feeding or anything else dealing with the care of horses or other equines.
While there is a range of programs therapists can practice, all have goals around developing emotional skills — such as regulating feelings and building self-confidence, self-awareness and empathy.
Working with horses requires concentration, selflessness, teamwork and a keen awareness of physical space and connection, which is why it’s found success in helping people deal with issues including grief, anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, bad breakups and various fallouts from trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Equine therapy has also shown to be beneficial for people with a variety of special needs including autism, Down syndrome, paralysis, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injuries, strokes, certain physical disabilities as well as inflammatory diseases like multiple sclerosis. In fact, Ann Romney, who was diagnosed with MS in 1998, has reportedly found huge benefits from riding horses.
"More people are recognizing the benefits of not only the physical movement of the horse and rider but also the emotional bond you find with a horse," Caitlin Martin, PATH Certified Equestrian Program Coordinator for the nonprofit Melwood, which provides opportunities for people with disabilities, tells Yahoo Life.
She says there has been an "uptick" in its equine therapy participants, explaining, "With the recognition of PTSD as a mental trauma, we have seen more psychologists recommending equine therapy as a coping mechanism, particularly for injured veterans. In general, there’s a lot of support from the Veterans Administration around the benefits for recovery from PTSD, TBI and other trauma-related injuries, and equine therapy has some unique benefits for that population."
Each individual is different and, depending on their needs and goals, finding a program that is right requires specificity. But there are a few kinds of equine therapy that are widely practiced:
Equine facilitated therapy (EFP): Most programs of this kind utilize groundwork with horses such as grooming, feeding and ground exercises. As noted by EquestrianTherapy.org, the goal of assisting riders with emotional and mental disabilities or people dealing with big life changes such as a death in the family.
Hippotherapy: In this program, the horse is typically controlled by a handler and led through various gaits, tempos, directions and speeds, notes iHeartHorses.com. This allows the rider to meet the horse’s various movements in real time with the intention of strengthening the rider's muscles and receptors.
Therapeutic riding: Typically performed by a riding instructor guided by a hippo therapist, the goal is to improve the physical, emotional and social state of the rider. Some who can benefit are children with cerebral palsy or Downs syndrome. It’s also shown benefits in people with autism, sensory integration disorder, and has even shown benefits for language development and trauma recovery in children.
Equine facilitated learning (EFL): This particular program offers a variety of emotional and social activities based on horse experiences and has shown to be effective in youth and adults. The basic principle is for horses and humans to work together as guides and facilitators to help them enhance their own life skills, improve their emotional strength and increase self-worth.
What makes being with horses so therapeutic?
Part of it is due to helping to close a systemic gap among caregivers, according to psychologist and grief counselor Joanne Cacciatore, founder of Selah House Respite Center and Care Farm, where pigs, goats, horses and other rescued animals aid therapists in comforting the bereaved; the Arizona-based center was featured recently in Oprah and Prince Harry's mental health documentary The Me You Can't See. "We’re no longer teaching therapists or psychiatrists how to be with people who are suffering,” she previously told Yahoo Life. “We want to fix people rather than just be with them.”
That's why the healing powers of animals can be so vital — including horses, which are naturally intuitive and sensitive, as well as keen observers who are highly vigilant and sensitive to movement and emotion, often mirroring a rider’s behavior, which allows for a deeper connection that nourishes a feeling of safety and awareness.
As WebMD notes, caring for animals is a proven way of reducing stress and boosting your mind. It’s even been linked to decreased blood pressure, healthier cholesterol levels and lower triglyceride levels.
A 2015 study from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus showed that children with autism saw incredible benefits from equine therapy after just 10 weeks of practice. Specifically, researchers noted a reduction in irritability, improvements in social communication and word fluency, and noted that a horse’s rhythmic stride can have a calming effect on the brain.
Whether it's a horse or other animals — like the oh-so-friendly pig that Spears befriended, about which she gushed, "I've never seen a pig like this before!" — it's clear that the bonds we make with animals have real effects.