Ever wondered why you feel so good after stroking your cat? Being around animals is very therapeutic, and animal therapy can bring many health benefits. Domesticated animals, including dogs and cats, dolphins, and farm animals, (particularly horses) are often harnessed for their effects on a person’s well-being. The treatment of animals for physical, emotional, and psychological health has no side effects, instead bringing harmony and happiness to those that seek an alternative form of therapy.
This form of treatment can take place individually or in groups, in a number of settings, from prisons, to hospitals and nursing homes. Children with special needs and the elderly can particularly benefit from animal therapy.
What Conditions Can Animal Therapy Benefit?
Animals can benefit a diverse range of individuals and offer comfort and non-judgmental relief to those suffering from a variety of conditions and illnesses. Our four-legged friends can help to improve social skills and impulse control, reduce anxiety, alleviate depression, lower blood pressure, and improve fine motor skills. Animal therapy has many additional applications, including decreasing isolation and promoting confidence, self-esteem, communication, trust, and spiritual connection.
As a mother, I always worry about my children’s health and well-being. When one of my daughters was having trouble with bullies at school, she naturally became quite sad and stressed, but she cheered up immediately whenever our cat came along. I have also seen the power of animals for people who have difficulty learning to read or who are blind.
Those with addictions, psychiatric disorders, heart disease, dementia and autism spectrum disorders can greatly benefit from animal therapy. Even those with cancer can benefit. Recently, I helped a friend’s son who was suffering from cancer find strength from interacting with horses. As I happen to be a freelance health and nature writer, I’ve teamed up with a small pet health site to develop a simple guide for parents explaining how horses are just one animal involved in helping children with cancer.
Source of Comfort
Horses provide a wonderful source of comfort. They understand body language and emotions like no other animal, and act as a mirror for our thoughts and feelings. In Horse Sense and the Human Heart, psychotherapists Adele and Marlena McCormick convey the enormous comforting qualities of horses: “Interestingly enough, our horses have been attracted to and curious about most individuals suffering from any kind of problem. They know something is wrong and will alter their normal behavior to make contact, approaching more slowly and carefully than with the rest of us, knowing when they are kind but wounded. Time and time again we have watched our horses offer simple gestures of comfort and affection.”
Horses and Cancer Treatment
Let’s look at how horses are specifically effective in treating cancer. Equine therapy started in the 1960s, and now there are many therapists working with those suffering from this devastating disease, with EAGALA being a pioneer in the field. Founded in 1999, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association trains therapists and provides public awareness, research, and education.
Riding horses, as well as grooming and petting them, are all ways in which to bring health improvements to the cancer patient. Psychotherapists trained in horse care and equine therapy can offer comfort to the terminally ill or those in recovery. Riding can prove very beneficial in terms of treating cancer, as it releases endorphins and serotonin, which are known to reduce stress and depression.
Horse Power for Life offers an equine therapy program specifically for cancer patients, young and old. Upon completion of the 16-week program, all participants will be competent in the following areas: haltering and tacking up the horse/pony, using grooming equipment correctly, leading a horse/pony from left and right sides, and most importantly, understanding horses and how they communicate their thoughts and emotions.
Not only does equine therapy assist cancer sufferers, but it also benefits cancer survivors by increasing strength and fitness levels. Spirit Promise Rescue, based at Blossom Hollow Ranch, New York, provides a tailored program for those recovering from cancer. At Dr. Patrick Daugherty’s barn, breast cancer survivors utilize the power of the horse to heal, regaining strength and a sense of peace. Working on dexterity by braiding the horse’s mane and using grooming tools to brush the horse with up and down/side to side movements helps the women to improve their strength after surgery.
 McCormick A & M. Horse Sense and the Human Heart, Health C ommunications: Deerfield Beach, FL, 1997.