Hooves in assisting behaviour – Equine therapy  

Written by Jenny Phillips - 10th May 2022


“The outside of a horse is the best thing for the inside of a man”   

Greek Sage

Definition of equine: Equine means connected with or relating to horses. Collins dictionary.

Types of equines: Horses / ponies, Donkeys, Mules, Asses, Zebras

What is equine therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy covers many different approaches and treatment forms, which involve horses and other equines to promote human wellbeing, physical and mental health.

Horses are incorporated into several different types of therapies to help people experiencing physical, mental or emotional difficulties. These include:

1. Therapeutic Horseback Riding – used as a form of exercise to improve coordination, posture, balance, muscle tone, wellbeing and confidence. Normally, the individual is taught how to work with the horse on the ground, as well as being able to ride.

2. Hippotherapy – Better known as riding for the disabled; this approach can also include a range of multidisciplinary professionals like speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists. The horse is controlled by a handler at all times and led through a range of different gaits, tempos, cadences and directions. These different movements of the horse make the rider utilise different postural responses and therefore strengthen the muscles of the rider.

3. Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) – These interventions heighten self-awareness, which is of great importance in order to reveal patterns of behaviour and provide an opportunity to learners to think in new ways. There are three main focuses in EAL which are education, personal development and professional development. Individuals gain self-confidence by learning how to work with a large and powerful animal and how non-verbal communication can affect others around them.

4. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) – Utilises horses in the treatment of psychological problems. Most of these programmes utilise ground work including: feeding, grooming and ground exercises, however, some programmes may also include riding. This approach focuses on assisting individuals to learn about themselves and to discuss feelings, patterns and behaviours. The aim is to support social, emotional, cognitive and behavioural manners.

5. Equine-partnered play therapy (EPPT) – Every child has an innate capacity for positive growth and development; however, some can become discouraged along the way. This negative impact can appear as misbehaviour, worry, acting out, problems with concentration and attention, and possibly even aggression. In (EPPT) the process integrates equines into child-cantered play therapy. According to Equine Connection Counselling 2021 benefits of EPPT include:

  • Improved social skills and empathy for others
  • Increased self-esteem, self-respect, and self-acceptance
  • Development of personal responsibility and self-direction
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Improved Decision-making and learning to make appropriate choices
  • Appropriate self-expression
  • Improved self-control and self-regulation

6. Other forms of equine therapy - 

  • Interactive vaulting (an activity where a person performs compulsory and freestyle movements on and around a horse).  
  • Therapeutic carriage driving, 
  • Equine-Assisted Activities (EAA), which can include horse grooming, stable management, shows and demonstrations.


Behaviour and the brain

The brain produces behaviour through neural pathways, which are made up of neurons connected by dendrites, and are created in the brain through our habits and behaviours. These behaviours affect the brain in connection with the environment, to cause structural changes within the brain, which last a lifetime. Fascinatingly, in "real time" social behaviour can also make changes, although these typically are reversible.

The three part “Triune brain” identified by Paul MacLean in the 1960’s remains a commonly accepted schematic in neuroscience. The limbic system holds the greatest interest to therapists, educators and counsellors, as it mediates the relational, social-emotional learning. Emotions utilise all parts of the triune brain and result in emotional states being felt physically throughout the entire body via the autonomic nervous system (emotions are designed to unite and stimulate the body into action). 

Triune brain:

1)     Neocortex {Human cognitive brain} – Frontal lobes deal with the higher-level executive functions like conceptualising and planning.

2)     Limbic system {Mammalian brain} – Is where attachment and bonding patterns are stored. Limbic reactions caused by trauma results in so called “amygdala hijack” – whereby cortical thinking is impossible and reactionary brainstem “fight or flight” takes over.

3)     Cerebellum and brain stem {Reptilian brain} – Controls basic fundamental functions such as heart beats, breathing, coordination and also the most basic reflexive or instinctive reactions. This reactive area mediates all-blown “fight or flight” responses under extreme stress.

The tri-brain through its autonomic nervous system and neural pathways evolved to ensure survival by functioning as an implicit Response Memory Prediction system.


Theoretical underpinning

Brief therapy – Utilises the problem-solving model of change, which has two fundamental philosophies of change, 1] a focus on visible behavioural interactions, 2] use of purposeful interventions to change observable patterns of undesirable behaviour.  Equine-assisted counselling focuses on actions versus insight → new actions produce and result in change. This approach also focuses on the principle of expectancy, through disrupting a person’s negative expectations and creating new positive expectations, and evidencing through this to the person that change is possible. 

Gestalt therapy – Within equine assisted counselling, this is based on the assumption that meaning comes from and is understood through considering each person’s interpretation of immediate experience what is happening in the ‘here and now’ and then unpicking and exploring the person’s perception. Through heightened awareness of reality of self and understanding of how that person interacts with their surroundings (natural environment, animals and people), this awareness allows and supports people in undertaking natural and spontaneous change. 

Reality therapy – Within equine assisted counselling, this works with the focus and central importance of love and belonging needs. This connection is forged and established with the horse during therapy. This theory also emphasises the importance of people’s thinking behaviour connecting to the ‘here and now’ experiences with the horse, which provides opportunities for people to discover and understand themselves.

Adlerian therapy – Within equine assisted counselling, this focuses on one specific tenant of Adlerian theory, that being a person’s move from inferiority feelings towards feelings of significance. This approach requires a person to be in physical relationship with the horse and other group members. A person gains a great sense of achievement when they successfully get a large animal that could easily overpower them to respond to them.   

Why horses and other equines?

  • Just like humans, horses are very social beings, whose herd dynamics are very similar to our family system. 

  • Horses are non-judgemental and unbiased. They will only react to a person’s behaviour and emotions and pose no potential threat of bias or pass judgement on a person’s emotional experience.

  • It can be difficult and sometimes painful for people to open up and express their emotional problems, life transitions or past experiences. Through using the horse as a reference point and processing through the horse (externalising), it can make processes much easier and allows people to manage their vulnerability.

  • A human heart weighs between 9 – 10.5 ounces, whereas a horse’s heart averages 9 – 11 pounds. Due to this larger heart size, the horse’s electromagnetic energy field is huge and when a person is in a horse’s presence, the person’s nervous system automatically syncs up with that of the horse. Horses can sense everything which is going on in the person’s body thoughts, energy and one of the most amazing and important things about standing next to a horse and being in their presence is that they can calm the entire body.

  • Horses are able to mirror what a person’s body language is telling them and also respond to people’s behaviour. Horses are able to teach people self-awareness, honest communication, patience, healthy boundaries, affection, leadership and a lot more.

  • There is clinical evidence that just being near horses can alter a person’s brainwaves. People calm down and become more centred, as well as focused when with horses. Horses are naturally empathetic, and members of the herd are able to feel what is happening with other members of the herd.


How can equine therapy help?

When working with and caring for horses, it requires concentration, selflessness, and teamwork. Equine-assisted therapy is able to help people improve self-esteem, self-awareness, confidence, and empathy. 

ADHD Attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder – This form of therapy intervention appeals to many with ADHD, as it affords them an active, fun and hands-on experience. The focus for this group is on presence, attention, boundaries, social cues, mindfulness and possibly more depending on the individual needs. For those suffering from ADHD, the sense of accomplishment can be a great benefit.

Oppositional behaviour – When working with this group of people, it is of great importance to also treat and work with all co-occurring conditions. Of paramount importance is to work with developing skills related to empathy, self-control, problem-solving and perspective taking. Equine-assisted play therapy is one way in which to approach this condition. Through the inclusion of equine in the play therapy, children are afforded the opportunity give and receive nurturing, VanFleet and Thompson 2010. The equine responds to the child as a peer and acts authentically, providing immediate feedback to ground play sessions in reality, Sheade and Box, 2014. 

ASD Autism spectrum disorder – Children, teens and even adults with this diagnosis find animal therapy helpful and they are also found to be responsive to this method, and this includes equine therapy. Those with ASD are not forced into verbal conversations / communication with the horse, they are not presented with confusing subtle facial expressions of other people, they are more apt to observing and understanding body movements of horses and many of those with ASD gain joy from the sensory experience of touching hair {coat}. All of these opportunities and learning experiences can be afforded to people through equine-assisted play therapy and also other equine based interventions.



Equine therapy has been identified as helping with and supporting those with:


Behavioural problems

Identifying & coping with feelings


Communication & interpersonal skills


Setting boundaries

Relationship issues


Eating disorders

Overcoming fears


Taking care of oneself & others


Patience & a sense of pride


“The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and freedom.”

Sharon Ralls Lemon



Sheade, H. & Box, L. (2014). Playtime with horses: Equine partnered play therapy. PATH Intl. Strides, 20(3),18-21.

VanFleet, R. & Thompson, T. (2010). The case for using animal-assisted play therapy. British Journal of Play Therapy, 6, 4-18.


Accessed 01/05/2022


Accessed 01/05/2022



As well as her extensive experience as a nurse, Jenny is a qualified Nursery Nurse with her NNEB, ADCE, CACHE Diploma level 3 and CACHE SEN cert and over 7 years of experience within a nursery setting. Jenny has spent time working as a lecturer in Child Health at Middlesex University and as a Qualified paediatric nurse and Neonatal intensive care nurse with over 13 years of experience in neonates. Her work as a disability youth worker led to Jenny gaining further qualifications, including two honours degrees and a MA in Inclusive Education, specifically focussing on therapeutic use of animals with children who have SEN to help education, development, growth, health and wellbeing. Jenny also has a PGCE. Currently, Jenny is also a forest school practitioner with 3 and 4 year olds, and is qualified in animal therapy and farm therapy.