Anorexia and Equine Therapy

When I was 11, I went on a day-long, group horseback riding tour in New York’s Catskill Mountains. We were enjoying a shady trail on a hot, summer afternoon when the dozen horses in our party refused to go any further.

The riding master told us to stay put while he investigated. When he returned, he softly intoned, “I think it’s a bear.” Just then, an angry growl filled the woods, and the twelve horses simultaneously did an about-face.

My horse, a white fifteen-year old, was something of a maverick. He decided to take off alone with me. He galloped so furiously that I could feel a powerful breeze against my face, as if I were in a convertible going over 40 miles an hour.

Having previously taken numerous lessons, I was quite competent in riding basics, but my 11-year-old body was of insufficient strength to stop the horse. But after about a mile of alternately pleading, comforting (“It’s ok now. You’re safe”), and pulling on the reins, he relented.

“That horse never ran that fast in his life,” said the riding master when he finally caught up with us.

Twenty-eight years later, I am still no equestrian expert, but on that day I learned a great deal about these animals. They sensed a danger of which humans were blissfully ignorant, and they took prudent steps to protect themselves. My elderly horse in particular— initially terrified into running like a two-year-old thoroughbred— eventually settled down and listened to me. He may not have understood my words, but I am convinced that he sensed someone relatively calm and capable was on his back.

Trust. Communication. Self-confidence. These are a few of the many benefits of equine therapy. According to a 1998 article by Carol O’Connor (no relation to the actor) of the Capitol Area Therapeutic Riding Association, equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) was first developed by eighteenth-century German physicians to treat emotional disorders. “EAP goes beyond the activity of riding, and utilizes the tasks of caring for the horse and the bonds that form through that caring as a means of establishing trust, respect, and responsibility,” writes O’Connor.

The treatment, she notes, did not catch on in the United States until about 1970. And only within the last few years has the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA) begun developing standards for this field.

According to an article by EFMHA co-founder Isabella (Boo) McDaniel, equine therapy in the U.S.A. began as a treatment for the physically and mentally disabled, but the patient population quickly expanded to include troubled teenagers, prisoners, and unwed mothers. The Remuda Ranch, about 60 miles northwest of Phoenix, Arizona, uses it to treat anorexics and bulimics.

Remuda employs instructors certified in EAP who develop programs tailored to each patient’s individual needs and capabilities. Treatment consists of two ninety-minute riding sessions per week and requires the patient to perform such caregiving duties as grooming and saddling the horse.

According to Remuda, equine therapy’s benefits to anorexics and bulimics include the following:

Self-Confidence. Horsemanship helps build the self-esteem necessary for recovery.

Body Image. Although skeletal, anorexics see themselves as fat. The anorexic’s awareness of her size in relation to the horse’s helps to correct her distorted body image.

Communication and Trust. Eating disordered persons have unhealthy communication habits and difficulty trusting people. The non-verbal relationship that develops between patient and horse will help her in future dealings with humans.

The pastoral setting of a ranch is conducive to treatment, according to Greg Kersten, founder of Equine Services, and Lynn Thomas, Residential Director of Aspen Ranch. Aspen runs an adolescent treatment boarding school. Kersten and Thomas note that the open space and physical freedom associated with horseback riding is “much more non-threatening than an office environment, especially with adolescents.” As at Remuda, Aspen patients care for the horses they ride.

According to an article written by Kersten and Thomas, psychotherapists and certified equine instructors team up to treat patients. Therapy at Aspen includes riding a horse guided by an equine instructor who uses a “lunge line,” a 20-foot rope attached to the animal and held by the instructor. To foster concentration, the horse is ridden “bareback” (without a saddle). The instructor works with the horse, while the therapist converses with the patient. Because the rider must focus on the horse’s body language, there is no time for deception or dishonesty. It is in this way, note the authors, that patients are able to get in touch with their feelings while building self-confidence.

O’Connor noted that, as of the date of her writing, few insurers were willing to cover treatment for equine therapy. But if history is any guide, that situation is likely to change. Fifteen years ago, there was little coverage for complementary therapies; now that more industry standards are in place, insurers are far more accommodating.

To be sure, equine therapy is not for everyone. But if you like animals and the outdoors, it could be just the ticket to getting your recovery up and running.

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