Four-Legged Caregivers

Allison Goldberg

“There is something about the outside of a horse, that is good for the inside of a man.”

This is often attributed to Winston Churchill, but regardless of the origins, it rings true with every horseperson. We all know that the time we spend with our horse is the best mental health therapy we can buy. I don’t need to tell anyone who has spent time with a horse that they are highly sensitive, sentient beings, capable of reading and reacting to our emotions. As it turns out, they not only read our emotions; they also absorb them.

Several months ago, we were contacted by Jess Rice, the Equine manager of The Therapeutic Riding Institute in Spring Valley, Ohio. TRI was established in 1973 as one of the first organizations in the world to provide equine therapy to people with disabilities.  Now a Premier Accredited Center with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), TRI is one of the top therapeutic riding centers in Ohio, with nine therapy horses serving over 70 students a week. Jess reached out to us because one of her therapy horses, Arizona had developed a severe cribbing habit. Jess wanted to try our CBD products to see if it would help Arizona break the habit. In speaking with Jess, we realized what an amazing job Arizona and the other therapy horses performed, but that it comes with a cost.

"But the cost to the therapists, both humans and horses, is that holding all that stress takes a toll and causes a high burn-out rate and even illness"

Equine Assisted Activities, which originated in the 70’s as a mode of therapy for those living with physical challenges, is beneficial not just for the physical, but also the cognitive, emotional and social well-being of individuals with special needs. From a physical perspective, horses move us in ways that closely resemble the human gait but is difficult to simulate in traditional therapy. This movement can significantly improve flexibility, strength, and balance for people with challenges such as cerebral palsy, or a traumatic brain injury or Down’s Syndrome. From a mental perspective, however, it is more subtle, but the results are equally significant improvements in mental health for people with cognitive disorders, such as autism, ADD or ADHD, or even PTSD. Riding helps to build or re-build the neural pathways needed to control emotions, think clearer, and even communicate better.

Through evolution, horses developed finely tuned instincts for survival as prey animals in the wild. As a herd, horses rely on each other to guard against threats and danger. The merest flick of an ear, or suddenly lifted head sends the herd off to safety. They read each other’s body language. Once horses were domesticated, this instinct didn’t go away. According to Kathy Corbett, the Program Director at TRI, horses react to over 30 body language cues from humans, such as shaking or nodding your head or being tense or angry, and they act accordingly. They read those signals first and react, they don’t negotiate, Corbett says. They don’t care if we like them, they simply respond to our cues, just as they do with each other in the wild. If a student comes in to work with the horse on the ground and is tense or afraid, the horse will pick up on that and also be tense and afraid. Those students are then given tools to help them control their emotions. They learn that if they relax, their horse will relax. A young girl, Jailynn, who came to TRI from foster care, said, “I learned how to love my horse and how to ride my horse. I know how to be calm with my horse when I am not calm.” Another parent of a child with autism said, “The calmness that comes over him when [he] is on the horse is transformative. He is not able to settle his mind or body like [he] can when [he] is at the farm. It helps him through the next few days. Our only wish is that he could ride every day of the week.”

“But this is extremely stressful for our horses,” Corbett says. It’s “not only physically challenging, because we are putting those unbalanced riders that might have cerebral palsy or maybe they have had a brain injury or Down’s Syndrome and they are pear-shaped, they’re not balanced, emotionally, our horses take on a lot of stress. And these horses are selected because they are care-givers.” She goes on to say that they must be very careful with the horse’s mental health. Horses that do therapeutic riding have a very high burn-out rate because they take on so much stress.

Jan Katz, a clinical psychologist specializing in children and families with special needs, explains that horses “and all psychotherapists are the same, in a sense.” A therapist’s role is to receive and hold the pain and the stress that comes from the limbic system, which is the deep-core system in the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” instinct we all need for survival. All psychotherapists, whether they are humans or horses, absorb this stress and pain so that the human, their subject, can then use their frontal cortex to think freely. But the cost to the therapists, both humans and horses, is that holding all that stress takes a toll and causes a high burn-out rate and even illness. In horses, this is often seen in stress-related gut disorders, like ulcers, or in stress-induced behaviors such as weaving, pacing, or cribbing, like Arizona.

The good news is that Arizona’s cribbing has been reduced by 75 to 80 percent. He has been on the CBD for five months with good relief. TRI goes to great lengths to protect and care for the horses that give so much. They get frequent rest days and as much turn-out as humanly possible, says Jess Rice. They also get to do whatever they enjoy the most, whether that is simple exercise with an experienced rider, or free pasture time to exercise on their own. It seems they also need time to just move their bodies and not think, same as humans.

Equine Assisted Activities have been around for centuries; we are just now doing the research to prove how effective they are, both for the physical, emotional and cognitive well-being of humans. Physical and Occupational therapists have seen the benefits of horses, but the new emergence is in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. The industry has exploded with veterans and first responders. People are experiencing vast improvements in anxiety, depression and PTSD recovery, a subject I hope to explore in a subsequent article.


For more information on Equine Assisted Therapy, please visit PATH International at or The Therapeutic Riding Institute at And as always, please visit my blog, “Between the Cross-Ties with Allison” at our website,

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