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  • Brief History of the inclusion of horses in human services.

    We have come to realize that animals not only co-exist with us, but have a positive impact on the quality of our lives. As we evolve and our needs change, all animals, but especially domesticated animals adapt to play a central role in improving the lives of humans. Today, domesticated animals mostly provide recreation and sweet companionship. In fact, Paul McGreevy in his second edition of Equine Behavior A Guide Veterinarians and Equine Scientists wrote that horses are rarely referred to anymore as farm animals and are viewed more as a luxury item that have a more emotional focus rather than an industrial or work purpose.

    Recognizing the relational and emotional benefits of horses, human service workers have been formally including them to enhance the services they offer the public for over 50 years. It first became popular among horse trainers who recognized that interacting with horses had a positive impact on people both physically and psychologically. They learned that riding horses improved muscle tone and balance and that training horses (without force) required a tremendous amount of self-awareness and emotional regulation. These trainers first started bringing these lessons to the awareness of other horse owners or people wanting to become horse trainers. Eventually, their audience grew and they started sharing these lessons with people who really didn’t have much experience with horses, but were looking for the physical and personal growth and development that could be gained from horses.

    The most well known horse trainer to formally incorporate horses to enhance a human service was Lis Hartel. She was popular because she won two Olympic silver medals in dressage in 1952 and 1956. She was interested in incorporating horses in human services because she had contracted polio in her early twenties and was convinced that riding horses was her best therapy. She partnered with physical therapist, Ulla Harpoth to incorporate riding in the services to her clients.

    Inspired by Lis, riding instructors all over the world started adapting their riding lessons to accommodate people with physical and developmental disabilities. The popularity of these adaptations grew and those that had learned how to do it well began teaching others what they had learned; thus, PATH (then NARHA) was born. PATH called these adapted riding lessons, Therapeutic Riding. Physical therapists were drawn to therapeutic riding because of its great potential to benefit their clients; however, they quickly realized there was a need to differentiate adaptive riding lessons from physical therapy. While an adaptive riding lesson has therapeutic benefit just like adaptive skiing, swimming, or other recreational activities, it does not meet the scope of practice requirements for therapy. In 1992, the American Hippotherapy Association was born to provide training for physical therapists, occupational therapists and speech and language pathologists who wanted to incorporate mounted work and other interactions with horses in their sessions.

    While riding trainers and physical, occupational and speech and language therapists were witnessing progress in the physical condition of their riders and clients, they began to notice many other psychological benefits as well. Riding trainers started adding more and more emphasis on the personal development of their riders and the field of behavioral health services began to incorporate interactions horses. The first association to formalize the inclusion of horses in mental health therapy, EAGALA was started in 1999 to provide training for mental health therapists.

    Today, horses are included in a variety of human services. There are several therapy/treatment services that are provided by a licensed professional whose services can be reimbursed by insurance. Such services are physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language pathology, mental health therapy, substance abuse counseling, treatment in a residential facility, etc. These services are guided by their scope of practice and horses are included as one of the many treatment tools/interventions available to the therapist to utilize in their sessions. To learn more about scope of practice, feel free to read my Blog, Scope of Practice and Human Services that Incorporate Interactions with Horses.

    Horses are also included in services provided by individuals whose services are not regulated and who are not reimbursed by most insurances. These services are usually offered by life coaches, riding instructors or possibly teachers. These are usually paid out of pocket or supported by a grant for a specific causes. For instance, it could be a summer youth empowerment camp, school anti-bullying group, corporate team building series, leadership workshop, cancer survivor group, adaptive recreation for injured veterans or people with disabilities, etc.

    Today, there are also many organizations that provide training and certification for people to incorporate horses in their services safely and ethically. There are two different types of certifications. There are certificates that come from an organization after completing their training and proving competence in implementation of their model. Certifications are also awarded by independent organizations; meaning that the certifying organization is separate from the organization that provided the training. Typically, a certification from an independent organization holds more prestige as most organizations providing training have no accountability or proof that their approach is meeting the highest practice standards. The best approach is to seek training from organizations that are accredited to do so and seek certification from independent organizations.

    One additional Note: Whether the certification is from the organization that provided the training or from an independent board or organization, a certification is not the same thing as a regulated state license. For instance, a certificate does not allow someone to perform therapy and bill insurance.  First, this individual must hold a state license to perform therapy and then can hold a certificate in the specialty area to incorporate horses in therapy sessions.

    To Learn more about how to incorporate interactions with horses in behavioral health services click here for the FREE course Best Practice Standards for Incorporating Horses in Behavioral Health Services.