The Life-Changing Magic of Equine Therapy (Expert Interview)


Just about anyone who’s ridden a horse will tell you that there’s something special about them—some might even say magical.

At least that’s the word used by Kaye Marks, who gets to experience the magic of horses at close hand. Kaye is the Director of Marketing and Communications at PATH International, a Colorado-based, nonprofit organization that credentials and educates professionals and therapeutic riding centers throughout the US and globally.

In such a position, Kaye has a unique perspective on the impact which horses and equine therapy have on the lives of tens of thousands of families each year. I had the opportunity to speak with her to hear more about her experiences and about the world of Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT).

How Equine Therapy Empowers Thousands Each Year

EAAT aren’t what a lot of people are accustomed to hearing when considering health and wellness, or physical, occupational, and speech pathology goals. The activities don’t take place in an office building or in a clinical setting. And yet PATH International centers together change the lives of  ​close to 70,000 children and adults in a single year​, including thousands of veterans in addition to those with physical, cognitive, emotional and mental challenges.

Sessions at a PATH International center often have participants partnering directly with horses—riding them with the help of a certified instructor, caring for them, or walking with them.

And the results can be significant and heartwarming: children with autism can connect with their families in new ways that carry over outside the arena; men and women with physical impairment can regain or improve mobility; veterans suffering from PTSD open up and begin to heal. For Kaye, there’s a reason that people love equine therapy:

“I think it’s really great for people who’ve been receiving traditional therapy. It’s nice to get out of the clinical situation and I think people love being around animals. In the case of therapeutic horsemanship, it really takes a person out of their traditional day-to-day setting and puts them somewhere completely different.

Another thing that’s cool is that it’s kind of a built-in community: you might have around three volunteers in a session, in addition to a certified instructor plus sometimes a licensed therapist and maybe someone leading the horse so there are social relationships that come out of that situation too, which is really amazing.”

As for the horses, they are the secret ingredient:

“I don’t know if even after all the research in the world they’ll be able to put their finger on the fact that there’s just something magical about horses. They’re amazing, deep, soulful creatures who are accepting or not—they will mirror whatever you’re bringing to them. They’re prey animals and I think in the mental health world that works really nicely, because if somebody feels compromised or vulnerable in any way, so has this animal instinctively and there’s a connection that forms.

They’re just so great to be around.”

But is it Impossible to Prove??

But even though members of PATH International may see effects that go beyond what research can tell us, they still see the importance of having a solid, scientifically backed foundation on which to build the industry. And fortunately, there have been big steps taken in this direction in recent years. In 2017, ​PATH International CEO Kathy Alm spoke about the importance of research to EAAT services​, and Kaye still shares that conviction today:

“I can say that anecdotally for 50 years, PATH International credentialed professionals and centers have done some really amazing work and has done a fair amount of documentation about efficacy and results.

Where there’s been a really big gap has been for the medical community, insurance groups and the public who need more validation from the industry, which you can completely understand.

A number of years ago, Colorado State University noticed there was a void of properly conducted research; they were able to find hundreds of articles that claimed to be research about therapeutic horsemanship. In doing that though, what they realized is that not all of it was done correctly, using real research methodology through a university, for example.

We know center personnel observe wonderful things every day: kids getting so much stronger and maybe becoming much more verbal—but that wasn’t always scientifically-backed research. Out of the thousands of articles they found, I think there were only a handful that were actually viable.

Even though some had been in a [scientific] journal, terminology was a big obstacle. If [terminology] wasn’t consistent in the research findings they did find, then even if [the studies] were valid they couldn’t use the data together with other studies because they’re labeling and reporting things differently.”

On the Right Track

As a result of the importance of having a clear, foundational terminology, PATH International has organized, with funding from The Bob Woodruff Foundation, a coalition with members from disparate EAAT organizations in addition to a parent of a participant and other outside-the-industry professionals.

The coalition has worked already for a year in order to come up with a definitions resource guide in order to standardize communications and research, which could better inform the public, media, medical professionals and insurance providers—a huge step forward for PATH International and the EAAT community.

“The people in our field out there working—they recognize and see [the results]. But they also recognize the need for real research because how great would it be for families one day to know they can get therapeutic horsemanship covered by insurance?

I have this dream where someday, medical professionals—you know how if you’ve twisted your knee or something, everyone is just excited to get you to the pool, right? Your doctor will say, ‘get out and swim!’ I would love it if it’s as common as that—‘you need to find a therapeutic riding center!’”

And with close to ​900 member centers​, you can probably find a PATH International center near you! Maybe you know somebody who would be interested. Or maybe you’d be interested in volunteering!

Can YOU be a part of this?

There’s a network of over 60,000 volunteers who help out at PATH International centers with a variety of tasks. According to Kaye, there’s certainly room to become involved with EAAT:

If it’s something interesting to a person, I would really encourage him or her to become a member of PATH International first of all, just to start getting all the publications and have access to education offerings and resources. Then go volunteer at a local center. Those are both ways to really get a good, inside feel for the industry.

I would definitely encourage people to become involved because it is such an amazing industry. It attracts the coolest people: they’re smart and savvy about so much and are such caring people. I think it’s just a really good group of big-hearted individuals who are attracted to such a thing—how can you beat that?

If working or being involved with the amazing work of EAAT does interest you, you can start reading more about it on the ​PATH International website​ or like their Facebook page. PATH Intl. is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and plans to continue working with the magic of horses and humans well into the future.

Have you ever worked with equine therapy or do you know anyone who benefited from EAAT? Let us know in the comments!

(Featured image used with the permission of PATH Int’l.)

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