Equine-Assisted Therapy: Info & Heretical Thoughts

[If you read no further, please note that equine-assisted psychotherapy is undertaken by a licensed mental health professional who has undergone additional training and supervision in how to adapt their therapeutic orientation to include equines in their clinical work. And ideally, such clinicians are dually competent in both the practice of psychotherapy and their understanding of equines and equine behavior.]


Okay, y’all…

It’s been a year and a day since my last blog post (and what a year it’s been. If y’all only knew.), but I’m back in the saddle again.

Some readers may be aware that I enjoy including equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) in my clinical work when I can. Recently, I was contacted by a colleague wanting more information on EAP as she was working on a referral.

In the course of that conversation, it became evident to me that many clinicians do not necessarily have accurate information regarding EAP. As a result, I decided to draft this blog post. I’ll outline some clear information I hope will be helpful, and I’ll opine in the process.  If need be, please remember these wise words from Jeffrey Lebowski regarding statements made herein, “Yeah, well, you know…that’s just like…your opinion, man” (Coen & Coen, 1998). Standby, heresy follows.

So…what is equine-assisted therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy” is a really good umbrella term under which any therapy incorporating equines falls. This term can also be a bit misleading, however, in that anyone, in the absence of any formal and/or professional training in a type of therapy (psycho-, OT, PT, etc…), can claim to operate an equine-assisted therapy program. Many persons that fall into this category might argue, “but wait a minute, I have X number of certifications through the _____ training model.” Yes, it is true. There exist training models in equine-assisted [this-training-or-that] for which there are no prerequisites for certification. And, some of the folks developing these models have no formal training in any therapy discipline, themselves.

While I’m potentially ruffling feathers, though, I would like to note that many such individuals are very well meaning people whose net outcome is largely positive. The ethical exception I take here is that such persons have no training, and give no training, in what I’ll simply refer to as “do no harm.” I will forego further discussion on this topic for another blog post, however, as it deserves its own treatise.

With all of that out of the way…

There are many ­equine-assisted therapy programs that are more aptly referred to as therapeutic horsemanship (or therapeutic riding) programs. These programs simply suggest that there is something therapeutic about learning horsemanship, and they’re right! That said, what takes place within these programs is not therapy in any traditional sense of the word. The therapeutic value inherent in recreating through horsemanship could be likened to the therapeutic value realized in recreating via routine hiking, taking up jogging, or acquiring a new and enjoyable skill. Ideally, persons involved in running such programs have participated in training in best safety practices for operating horsemanship programs.

There are many types of equine-assisted therapy that are, in fact, legitimate forms of therapy that also incorporate equines. These are not psychotherapies, however. In these programs, work is undertaken by a licensed professional from any number of disciplines. Examples include, but are not necessarily limited to: equine-assisted occupational therapy, equine-assisted physical therapy, and/or equine-assisted speech therapy. Equine-assisted work being undertaken to address physical needs generally falls under the term hippotherapy.

Finally, we move into a discussion of EAP. As mentioned at the top of this post, I argue in the strongest of terms that EAP is undertaken by a licensed mental health professional who has undergone additional training and supervision in how to adapt their therapeutic orientation to include equines in their clinical work.

Many licensed mental health professionals who offer EAP received additional training through the same aforementioned [this-training-or-that] models that train people foremost in their model and do not necessarily train clinicians in how they can adapt the therapeutic work they’re already doing to include equines. While I’d posit that the latter approach is more ideal (and I’m biased, admittedly), there is value in some of the models in existence. At minimum, some of the practitioners are at least licensed mental health professionals! The drawback is that some such programs end-up being shortsightedly rigid. Bear in mind, such programs have a vested interest in continuing to legitimize the commerce of their respective model, and so there is often posturing to substantiate* a given model over others.

As a final point of interest, some of these current leading models adhere strictly to an approach to EAP wherein there is 1) a licensed mental health professional and 2) an equine-specialist who, while having no mental health training, possesses an understanding of equines. In these models, the therapist and the equine-specialist work in concert, always, and without exception. My fear is that this, too, is done in an attempt to make these models more accessible by not making dual competency requisite. In any other specialty, dual competency would be the expectation.

Regarding my bias, and in the interest of transparency, after receiving training in some of the [this-training-or-that] models, I was very pleased to see training in EAP move into academia. While EAP has taken a foothold, to varying degrees, in a few academic institutions throughout the United States, as a graduate of the post-masters Equine-Assisted Mental Health Practitioner certificate program at the University of Denver, I am admittedly a proponent of that program.

So, if you’re looking to make a referral to equine-assisted therapy, you may do best to ensure the program you’re referring to has a licensed mental health professional on staff (who will be doing the therapeutic work). The same is true if you’re a consumer looking for equine-assisted therapy. In either case, it would also be appropriate to inquire about the training practitioners have received, and I would encourage you to lean towards referring to clinicians who are dually competent and practice autonomously**.

In summary, there is:

  1. Therapeutic Horsemanship (Therapeutic Riding)
    – therapeutic value is inherent in recreating through horsemanship
  2. Hippotherapy
    – a term used to refer to therapies, undertaken by licensed professionals from a range of disciplines (PT, OT, ST), incorporating equines in the treatment of physical needs
  3. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy
    – psychotherapy undertaken by a licensed mental health professional trained in incorporating equines in their clinical work

*  –  Seldom does this substantiation come in the form of empirical scientific evidence. But, many in the field, even many within some of the [this-training-or-that] models, are working to change this.
** – I believe it is perfectly acceptable for a clinician running EAP in a group setting to have extra hands (equine knowledgeable assistants) to help  facilitate the logistics of managing many people and equines.


Coen, E. & Coen, J. (Producers), and Coen, E. & Coen, J. (Directors). (1998). The Big Lebowski [Motion Picture]. USA: Polygram Filmed Entertainment and Working Title Films.

More about the author: www.ElementsWellnessAustin.com/jason.html