Equine Therapy

Equine Therapy is any form of mental health care which involves contact with a horse as part of the therapeutic process. “Equestrian Therapy” (ET), “Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy” (EFP) and “Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy” (EAP) are other terms sometimes used to describe this practice. As with other mental health treatments which involve animals (e.g., Pet Therapy), there is much diversity in exactly how the animal is utilized to aid in the treatment. At some Equine Therapy facilities, the services offered may have a specific population of interest (e.g., patients with physical or developmental disabilities) whereas in other settings the clients may have a much wider array of presenting concerns and needs. For some clinicians, the horse acts as a stimulus through which to provide the client a challenging scenario, an opportunity to conquer fears; for others, the horse aids in communication and trust-building. In any case, the philosophy of involving horses in the mental health helping professions is such that animals are capable of enhancing the therapeutic atmosphere by offering a nonjudgmental presence, warmth and gentleness, and a sense of being connected to nature. Learn more here.

The sort of mental health helping professional who becomes an equine therapist is one who is passionate about animals and likely has prior life experiences with horses (e.g., farm work, equestrian training). This is not to say that newcomers to horses are unwelcome in the profession, but one needs to take seriously the fact that there is an inherent risk involved in handling any large animal (and as such, there is also a hefty cost associated with liability insurance for these clinicians). Equine therapists are also mental health professionals who can garner a strong referral stream somehow. As it is a unique form of treatment not necessarily sought out frequently by the general public, one either needs to be part of a successful and visible service team which receives adequate demand to offset the costly nature of the upkeep; or, one needs to have very strong marketing skills to reach an audience of prospective clients. It is also important to acknowledge that equine therapists may not involve horses in 100% of their caseloads; for some, it is an augmentation of therapy services which may only be relevant for some clients and not others.

Equine therapists work near horses! This may mean that they work in a private practice which is nearby a stable, that they work in a treatment center which is itself part of a farm, or that they have some other setup making it convenient and feasible to incorporate horse contact in their daily work with clients. And notably, they often work outdoors unlike many other forms of psychotherapy, social work, and counseling. MFS and NMET are just two examples of numerous sites offering equine therapy here in the state of Michigan.

There is no specific educational path offering the exclusive route to equine therapy competence. To become an equine therapist, one must have the requisite educational background in a specific mental health field (e.g., Social Work, Clinical Psychology, Counseling), which almost certainly involves a bachelor’s degree followed by some level of graduate study, usually at least a master’s.
License: To practice in the state of Michigan, again, there is no one specific license which equine therapists must all pursue. Instead, they could go various routes including psychology (LLP or LP), social work (LCSW), or counseling (LPC). The key is to become licensed as a mental health professional according to LARA standards, and then from there to incorporate horses into one’s treatment planning.
Training: Because there is no specific degree and no specific license to recommend for this specialty (like most other “therapy” titles), options for graduate programs vary widely. There do exist some specialty graduate training offerings specific to equine-assisted mental health, such as this “Practitioner Certificate” program at the University of Denver. However, a “certificate” is not equal to a degree nor a license under Michigan state law, so one needs to plan carefully about whether such training offerings will translate as desired into their eventual career plans. Another option is to pursue graduate training in a mental health specialty at a university which also offers equestrian training, such as the University of Findlay’s Social Work & Equestrian Studies program in nearby Ohio. This way, one can be certain that they are both developing skills related to horses and gaining license-eligibility through their graduate studies.

Equine therapists are diverse in their mental health training backgrounds, but unified by their love of animals and belief in the power of connection with horses to be a healing force for clients. A common philosophy among these folks is the importance of being in nature, of seeing animal life with respect and reverence, and holding horses in particular in an almost sibling-like relationship to humans.

Relevant National Organizations
Certification Board for Equine Interaction Professionals

Relevant International Organization
Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association
Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International
Community Association for Riders with Disabilities