Why are horses used in therapy?

Horses are uniquely suited to therapy and learning because their psychology is very similar to ours.

Horses work in herds for their protection, socialization and psychological needs.  Whether in the field or in the wild, horses are always alert for predators.  To work effectively together, they develop a pecking order.  Leaders are chosen based on their intelligence, strength and ability to lead. All of these factors require clear communication and enforcing the rules of the herd. These are often traits we try to learn in therapy and horses teach these skill very well.

Horses are very sensitive to members of their herd in danger or being upset or distressed. The herd’s reaction is almost instantaneous.  The horse’s limbic system is always on alert for predators. We too have a limbic system in the center of their brain.  The limbic system has shortcut circuits from the special senses which alert the emotional system of any imminent or perceived threat. The limbic system can engage the motor system before our regular brain (prefrontal cortex) has a chance to process it.  For example, if you see a tiger on the loose, you don’t process with your reasoning brain all the reasons it’s a threat.  Chances are your limbic system tells you to run.

Horses have a heightened limbic response because they tend to be low on the food chain.  Therefore, they are good barometers of threat, anxiety and sadness because knowing these cues makes them feel safe.  As a result, they are excellent in reading people and their multiple expressions.  A recent study in 2018 (Univ. of Sussex and Portsmouth, UK), determined that horses recognize and retain human expressions and even remember a person’s expression for up to twenty-four hours after their human encounter.  The study also found that horses can convey seventeen emotional states and can read our expressions accurately.  Although they read negative facial expressions quicker than positive ones.

These skills are why horses are so effective in therapy.  People who deal with depression, anxiety, trauma, often hold their emotions back but horses, in a non-intrusive way, can sense our emotional state and will indicate their observations in their behavior.  They are often more aware of our emotional states than we are.