Winston Churchill once said, “[t]here is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” He couldn’t have spoken truer words when it comes to horsemanship as therapy for cancer patients and survivors. People have long recognized the value of horses and healing going back to the time of the ancient Greece and Hippocrates.
So, it may come as no surprise that horses can offer physical and emotional support during the most trying times. Unlike traditional, medical treatments and therapies, horses give patients an incomparable sense of empowerment. For a patient needing hope, horse therapy helps provide a path to peace and tranquillity.
Benefits of Equine Therapy
The physical and psychological benefits associated with equine therapy are countless. Physically, patients improve balance and coordination. Rebuilding strength and muscle that may have weakened during cancer treatment and prolonged inactivity is of tremendous value.
Healing potential goes far beyond this physical realm. Horseback riding can improve confidence and self-esteem, giving patients a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and sense of universal connectedness. For cancer patients, horses can provide a much-needed distraction from the worry and angst over their condition. Patients can gain a new sense of control through learning to skillfully handle a horse and a sense of pride through accomplishment
These benefits begin with a new setting. Outside of the medical setting, cancer patients can live in the moment and focus on the present. And like other therapy animals, therapy horses offer opportunities to bond with another living thing for improved emotional wellbeing too. Their calming presence can reduce stress in patients coping with enormous emotional challenges. Physically connecting with a majestic horse offers a living connection that doesn’t inquire as to the frail human condition but offers consistent warmth and attention. Unfaltering, the horse will continually respond to both the rider’s commands and softer requests.
Horse Therapy in Action
Many organizations exist that provide horse therapy services to cancer patients and their families. Many common themes underlie these programs that offer welcome support. They focus on both the physical and psychological struggles facing cancer patients and survivors. They understand that the mental challenges often can be as overwhelming as the physical ones.
Horse Power for Life
The Pennsylvania-based organization, Horse Power for Life, harnesses the healing power of companion animals in a 16-week horsemanship program open for people all ages who have been diagnosed with cancer. During this time, individuals become empowered through learning horse care and handling. For people new to horse handling, it’s an opportunity to acquire new skills as they find emotional and psychological healing in the process.
Participants benefit from the social aspects as well as the opportunity to be a caregiver themselves. They can bond with a horse and enjoy the time away while having fun in the process. The program provides a much-needed mental break from the demands of cancer treatment.
Dream Rider Equestrian Therapy
Dream Rider Equestrian Therapy offers its services to individuals with physical and mental challenges, including breast cancer survivors. The organization recognizes the special circumstances of these survivors by providing both physical and emotional health support. It stands unique in that it is a program developed by a breast cancer survivor for others like her.
With its location in Alpine, California, the organization offers a calming atmosphere for its special brand of equine therapy. Horseback riding therapy also includes music therapy to allow riders to connect with their horses while riding to music. When combined, these therapies help patients focus on the present.
Rocky Mountain Riding Therapy
Rocky Mountain Riding Therapy located in Boulder, Colorado provides equine therapy to people suffering from physical, emotional, and mental disabilities. They specifically work on improving muscle tone, sensory processing, cognitive development, increasing confidence, and on emotional well being.
The retreat offered patients an opportunity to bond with horses while taking a break from the clinical setting. Part of their mission is to help each person reach their fullest human potential and to teach horsemanship. It shows another way that equine therapy can help cancer patients, survivors, and others who are afflicted with physical and emotional suffering find hope and strength.
How Horses Help
You may be wondering how horses can help cancer patients and survivors. A study by Cerulliet al. offers some answers. Researchers worked with women who had completed their breast cancer treatment. Subjects participated in a 16-week equine therapy program that included two hours of contact time each week.
After 16 weeks, participants experienced both physical and psychological improvement. They gained strength and improved their fitness levels. These results led researchers to recommend equine therapy as a means to improve the quality of life for cancer survivors as part of the rehabilitation process. This study provided measurable results from therapy horses.
Spending time with horses could provide an excellent way to move from treatment to rehabilitation in a process that addresses the entire experience. While cancer is a physical condition, it also carries a tremendous psychological burden.
Improving Psychological Health
A growing body of evidence exists that show horses offer mental health benefits too. For individuals dealing with cancer, equine therapy offers a way to face the everyday reality of coping with this condition. These unseen aspects of cancer struggle and survival often take a heavy toll on the psychological health of patients.
A study by Earles et al. offers new hope for the ways that horses can help individuals deal with the psychological burden of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers worked with individuals suffering from anxiety and PTSD over a six-week program that revealed incredible results.
Participants completing the session reported less anxiety and depression as well as reduced PTSD symptoms. These are emotions that cancer patients and survivors undoubtedly experience themselves. This study provides more evidence of the natural healing power of horses for individuals in stressful situations.
Therapy horses are one more way that companion animals can help people cope with the stress and anxiety that accompanies some of life’s most difficult challenges. And the great thing about equine therapy is that it provides a holistic approach. It addresses both the physical and mental issues that cancer patients and survivors face every day.
As Churchill reminded us, time spent with horses is good for our souls. Horses teach those who ride and care for them with trust and confidence. And for cancer patients, horses represent hope. They help put things in perspective and allow their rider to enjoy the moment with their equine friends.