Horses and Healing

What do horses have to do with the treatment of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder?

Well, Mike, I'm glad you asked... or I asked...

Over the last 15 years, equine assisted therapy has been growing in popularity as an adjunct treatment for eating disorders.

What is Equine Assisted Therapy?

Equine assisted therapy for eating disorders involves 3 individuals: a licensed therapist, a horse professional, and the client.

The activities and engagement with the horse would be individualized based upon the client's wants, needs, and struggles. The client would engage the horse in various tasks, activities, and experiences that utilize communication skills, building a relationship, asserting themselves, and expressions of self-confidence (among others). 

It is important to build a relationship with a horse. You can't just walk up and lead the horse.

In this way it is a lot like human relationships. 

One of the theories behind equine assisted therapy is that many individuals suffering from eating disorders struggle with communication of their thoughts and emotions, difficulties with trust, boundary setting, and self care taking. If there is an experiential connection to an animal (like a horse) where the person needs to learn to effectively communicate, set boundaries, learn to trust, and feed/ nurture the horse, healing may occur.

Many who have engaged in equine assisted therapy for an eating disorder speak of how building this relationship with a horse was powerful and more impactful than they expected.

Often times there is a strong attachment to the animal that develops.

Of course, right? Being human means that we yearn for connection.

All of the areas mentioned above are discussed with the therapist. The feelings of connectedness, growing trust, setting appropriate boundaries for safety, and many others. 

It is quite a bit different than sitting in a chair and talking to a therapist.

This is interacting with an animal, with the support of a therapist, who can help you gain awareness into your relational dynamics and patterns. 

It is amazing how much we can learn about ourselves when we are not guarded.

Equine assisted therapy has been used in the past with many different struggles including anxiety, depression, addiction, and more. In theory it would make sense that it would be helpful for eating disorders as well. However, most of the information on equine assisted therapy and eating disorders is currently anecdotal where people talk about their own personal experiences with equine therapy. Most who write from this perspective are very positive about it's influence and help.

It is important to note that equine assisted therapy for eating disorders is not meant to be the primary treatment option, rather, it is considered an adjunct treatment that someone may engage in above and beyond their work with their treatment team. Very important note.

Next | Research and Equine Assisted Therapy for Eating Disorders

There are few empirical studies (that's "science verbiage" for having a lot of people participate, solid controls over the elements, and having a comparison group). There is a great need for empirical studies to be conducted in the area of equine assisted therapy and eating disorders and several other adjunctive treatments/ activities that have gained prominence recently (e.g. yoga). 


The purpose of this blog entry is to share eating disorder recovery related ideas and does not represent professional medical of psychological advice from Mike Thomas or Recovery Spark. For professional advice, please connect with the professional eating disorder specialist that you work with.