Animal Assisted Therapy
by Jenny Holt
Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, immunotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy: the list of cancer treatments is endless. Treatment is also available to treat the psychological, social and spiritual side effects of the disease. For some, the answer comes through equine therapy, specifically the unmounted, psychological rehabilitation with horses.
Horses respond to patients in unique ways, including mirroring their emotions. Horses are even known to sync their heartbeat with their rider or a person on the ground. A horse’s social and responsive behavior is similar to a human’s, which allows them to establish a connection. This might be why equine therapy is quickly becoming one of the most popular forms of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT).
Allan J. Hamilton, a Professor of Surgery at the University of Arizona, holds equine therapy retreats for cancer patients. He explains, “the idea is that a large animal like a horse can become a metaphor for something powerful and potentially out of control,” much like cancer and similar life-threatening diseases. Dr. Hamilton adds that the metaphor can be used, “to start talking about how we approach cancer, and the values and attitudes we want in order to bring about a successful survival.”
After the trauma of cancer treatment, equine therapy helps patients rebuild a sense of confidence, self-worth, and perspective. While providing a distraction from the fears and stresses caused by their condition it helps patients achieve normalcy in their routine. Spending time with horses and equine therapists gives patients an additional support network allowing them to feel less isolated. It is also an opportunity to be socially active with people other than medical staff.
Equine therapy engages patients allowing them to connect one-on-one with horses. The process requires leaving their comfort zone and fully trusting the horse. The patient also must learn to manage their impulses and emotions.
An exercise may include feeling the horse’s body while the patient keeps their eyes closed. The process creates a sense of confidence for the patient and allows them to assume control. A therapist works with the patient after to talk through each experience to find out what worked and how the patient feels.
Equine Therapy may include grooming and leading the horse. The activity allows the patient’s strength, which was weakened during cancer treatments, to rebuild as their fitness levels improve.
To find an accredited facility, go to PATH International by clicking here.