Treating Depression with Equine Therapy

Horses and humans alike know depression.

Horses and humans alike know depression.

Depression is often an condition which is hard to define, but easy to recognize. It is hard to understand, but easy to know. A DSM (Diagnosis and Statistic Manual) criteria exists for various versions of Depression, but even by these standards, the diagnosis can be amorphous. The World Health Organization reports that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. It has been determined to be a risk factor for heart disease and it is now observed that prolonged depression can cause permanent damage to the hippocampus, a region of the brain which helps with memory, spacial mapping, and learning. 

Often depression gets intertwined with melancholia, unhappiness, and grief and can be situational or due to a series of unfortunate events. However, in many people with depression, no known cause can be discerned.  

I have found equine therapy to be one of the most effective tools in helping my patients who are struggling with depression. The way this helps is very hard to explain in a general sense because it really is addressing things on an individual basis. The interaction and connection with the horse is very unique for that person and for that reason is most effective.

The experience of depression is something to which all animals relate. A recent French study reported higher cortisol levels (a known stress hormone), inactivity, apathy, higher emotional response, and isolative behaviors in horses who endured stressors such as space restriction, history of abuse, and who were given little freedom throughout their day. Postural characteristics were also noted in that these "depressed" horses often stood in their stalls with lowered heads. Given these reactions, horses display similar reactions to humans when experiencing their depression. 

The core feelings of depression can be grief, fear, anger, loss of freedom to name a few. When I have rehabilitated abused horses, the feeling of depression can be deeply sensed. I know that in these cases, the time taken to build trust is essential. This is the same as with people. Humans often deeply connect with animals which have similar scenarios and stories such as their own. In the program with which I work, people can relate to these horses who are now rehabilitated and have learned to trust humans again.  

When horses connect with humans, amazing things happen. In life experiences often contribute to the feelings of depression, so it makes sense that adding our experiences with horses can contribute to feelings of healing.