Horses and Healing: The Possibilities of Equine-Assisted Therapy in Bipolar Disorder Treatment

Equine-assisted therapy is increasingly being integrated in mental health treatment programs owing to its remarkable ability to help people with severe psychiatric illnesses, including bipolar disorder. By forging a bond with these majestic animals, people living with bipolar disorder can experience profound benefits that aid the recovery process in unique ways. As evidence of efficacy mounts, this experiential therapy is opening up the door to hope and healing even for those with extensive treatment histories.

As Dr. Cary Grayson once said, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.”

In the horse world, this saying gets passed around a lot. Our experiences with these majestic beings have taught us that it is true—there is indeed something special about being around our horses, something powerful and restorative. That feeling of walking into a barn, feeling a horse’s warm nose press against you, and communicating with a creature who does not speak your language is truly something special.

In recent years, the mental health community has also begun noticing the healing potential of horses. While riding-based equine therapy has been used for decades for people with physical disabilities, equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning are increasingly recognized as ideal areas in which to develop valuable coping skills and alleviate psychological distress.

As such, this form of experiential therapy is now becoming an integral part of comprehensive mental health and substance use disorder programs across the country, bringing relief even to people with severe mental health disorders. For people with bipolar disorder, whose conditions have long been considered amongst the most difficult to treat, this emersion of equine therapy as a viable pathway to healing sparking new hope for controlling both acute and chronic symptoms.

Forging A Bond

Horses and humans have evolved alongside each other for thousands of years as companions, coworkers, and friends. It makes sense, then, that we are predisposed to developing strong bonds with these animals, forging a sense of mutual respect, trust, and even love. Part of this bond is born from the way our emotions and behaviors are shaped by our interactions with horses. As highly sensitive creatures, horses respond to your energy, naturally encouraging self-calming as you seek to elicit a positive response. Simply being around a horse can elicit feelings of joy, enhance self-awareness, and foster an emotional openness that leaves you more receptive to learning and growth.

These phenomena are harnessed in the context of equine-assisted therapy, inviting you to engage in treatment in novel ways as you discover new aspects to your own psychological framework and your own capacity for self-regulation. As Al Donato writes for CBC Television:

Unlike smaller therapy animals like dogs and cats, [horses] have a calming effect that’s magnified by their size and empathy. Horses are herd animals known for attuning themselves to human emotion, often reflecting the behaviours of those around them. For people building confidence, learning to lead around animals that loom over them can help improve self-esteem, encourage taking control, and addresses fears they feel are bigger than them.

Hallie Sheade, a counselor specializing in equine-assisted therapy believes the horses function as hyper-attuned therapists. “They’re capable of reading or becoming aware of how [a client] is feeling before I’m aware of it or even the client is,” she says. “The horse will then give feedback to the client, such as by moving toward the client or away.” With horses, you cannot lie or hide behind language or false social cues; they can read you and respond to your true state of being, allowing you to be seen as you are. At the same time, they offer “instant insight” into yourself, allowing you to see yourself as you really are.

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Benefits for Bipolar Disorder

If you’re living with severe bipolar disorder, equine-assisted therapy allows you to participate in the healing process beyond the limits of the traditional treatment environment. You are able to connect with yourself, your therapist, and your peers on a more meaningful level while exploring your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors with fresh eyes. This can be deeply empowering, as you become more attuned to your own internal states and practice self-regulatory skills that enhance your interactions with the horses, with yourself, and with the broader world. Developing this sense of control and mastery over yourself and your ability to interact with those around you—animal or human—even in the midst of the turmoil inherent to bipolar illness is a profoundly transformative experience.

Part of what makes this possible is the unique tactile and emotional support horses provide, support that is qualitatively different than that which is typically possible in mental health treatment. “[The] bond with horses can be really important in therapy because there are a lot of things that people can’t readily do for one another in a treatment facility, such as touch one another. Horses offer physical affection through touch,” says Dr. Colleen Dell, Professor in the Department of Sociology and School of Public Health at the University of Saskatchewan. “[Clients feel] love and support from the horses, which is an important and often overlooked element of human healing.”

Evidence of Efficacy

The benefits of equine-assisted therapy aren’t just anecdotal. Dr. Dell, one of the growing number of researchers investigating the effects of equine-assisted therapy in mental health and substance use disorder treatment contexts, has empirical evidence supporting her assertions. Her own studies have found that “the vast majority of clients felt calm, supported, and in control of their feelings following the horse interactions.”

The effects weren’t confined to the duration of the therapeutic session, either. Overall focus, motivation, and willingness to engage in other modalities all increased, leading to improved treatment outcomes. Another study, published in 2007, examined the impact of equine-assisted psychotherapy on people living with chronic mental illnesses by tracking Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and Beck Anxiety Inventory (BAI) scores throughout the course of treatment. All participants had improved BDI and BAI scores at the completion of 8 weeks of treatment, which was further supported by observational data.

Mike Delaney’s studies have shown similar results. As clinical director at Leading Equine Assisted Therapy (LEAP), however, he believes numbers don’t tell the whole story—statistics can never fully capture the transformation he sees in his clients. “The change in their behavior [is] tangible,” he says. “The first week they [are] looking at the ground, too scared to interact with people. By the end of the last week they [are] hugging people, dealing with their anger, and managing their emotions.” Delaney too attributes these changes to the bonding of horse and human. “Building a relationship with the horse and getting it to respect [you] really builds self esteem and confidence.”

Healing And Hope

If you are struggling with bipolar disorder, seeking residential care at a facility that incorporates equine-assisted therapy in its curriculum can be a vital step toward healing. Participating in this unique modality within a broader context of comprehensive treatment allows you to experience its benefits during the therapy itself as well as to transfer those benefits to other parts of treatment.

Many clients find that equine-assisted therapy strengthens the therapeutic alliance with clinicians and provides opportunities for bonding with peers, which enhances engagement in the program as a whole and ensures you get the most out of your time in care. By giving yourself the opportunity to explore yourself, your illness, and the world around you in the presence of horses, you can open up the door to profound self-discovery and sustainable wellness.

BrightQuest offers comprehensive, long-term residential treatment for people struggling with complex mental health illnesses as well as co-occurring disorders. Contact us for more information about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start on the path to lasting recovery.