Equine TherapyHealing with Horses in Therapy Sessions

Animals can really be best friends: snuggling a puppy after a hard day at work, watching fish swim peacefully in their cool water home, or listening to birds sing are all ways to decompress when life is overwhelming. Service animals play an important role in many people’s lives, serving as the eyes, ears, and protectors for their cherished owners.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)

More and more, animals are being incorporated into therapy sessions in eating disorder and substance abuse treatment centers and outpatient programs. Horses in particular are becoming increasingly popular as an experiential component to eating disorder treatment. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) gives clients the opportunity to interact with horses in a supervised, safe setting. Through ground activities with the horses, clients can practice skills learned in treatment in a non-threatening environment. EAP is supervised by a licensed therapist and a horse professional and does not involve riding activities.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. of Psych Central (www.psychcentral.com) discusses the many ways EAP can be beneficial to clients and therapists as they navigate eating disorder recovery:

  • Observation and growth: In EAP, therapists observe their clients’ interactions with the horses and gain an understanding of how this translates into reactions with people. This insight helps clients gain awareness and put skills into action.
  • Creating healthy relationships: Horses are not concerned about their appearance or weight. They simply live in the moment. Connecting with another being without the risk of judgment or rejection helps clients to feel less threatened when they transition to healthy relationships.
  • Fostering trust: Many eating disorder clients have experienced trauma and have a difficult time trusting others. Working with the horses provides clients with a safe environment in which to process their fears. When talking to a therapist is too threatening, EAP can be the bridge to ease into communication.

Horses Respond to Stressed Energy

Herd by a Horse (www.herdbyahorse.com) discusses how challenging it can be for eating disorder clients to identify and communicate feelings. Through interacting with the horses in EAP sessions, these clients can become aware of their barriers and pursue further work in these areas during therapy sessions. For example, a horse will become skittish or standoffish in response to stressed energy or a client who is not present during the session. The animal’s reaction to the client’s energy helps to initiate positive behavior change in the client.

EAP is an intense experiential approach and is therefore considered a short-term treatment, best used for clients in early recovery to aid in communication or as an adjunct to therapy further on in recovery. Scientific research is lacking regarding the effectiveness of EAP, but case studies have emerged that show great benefit to eating disorder clients (Tartakovsky, 2015). As EAP grows in popularity, more research will need to be done to solidify its effectiveness within the psychological community.




Tartakovsky, M. (2015). Equine Assisted Psychotherapy: Healing Therapy or Just Hype? Psych Central, www.psychcentral.com

Using Equine Assisted Therapy to Assist with Eating Disorder Recovery (2013). Herd by a Horse, www.herdbyahorse.com

What is EAP and EAL? Eagala, www.eagala.org