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Posted Nov 05 2009 10:00pm
Today's edition of Psychotherapy Brown Bag deals with the efficacy for Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy ( EAP ), specifically in the realm of eating disorders. What did the author, Mike Anestis, find?

EAP does not appear to be harmful, but there is no evidence that it is efficacious in the treatment of mental illnesses. There is a paucity of research on the topic and the research that exists is so full of flaws that it is actually rather remarkable that it was published in the first place. Nonetheless, fancy treatment centers charge outrageous fees to provide this service and make grandiose claims regarding efficacy. Just as we covered in our article on touch field therapy ( TFT ), such behavior is a prime marker of pseudoscience.

I don't doubt that riding horses is nice and fun and pleasant, but that doesn't mean that it helps treat eating disorders (or any other illness, for that matter). I find many things nice and fun and pleasant and even, in a sense, therapeutic, but that doesn't make it a treatment. I'm a big believer in the power of animals to make us feel better- my cat does it all the time. Nothing beats snuggling her in my lap or watching her silly antics. Spending time with her is often the highlight of my day. But it doesn't help treat my eating disorder. There's a big difference.

I've done some equine therapy while in treatment and maybe I'm just bitter, but I'm not sure what the point of it was. I get the theoretical premises upon which EAP stands (as summarized by Anestis ):

•Improving non-verbal communication skills through interactions with a non-verbal creature
•Improvement of acceptance skills and emotional expression through the realization that a person can not make the horse do things it does not want to do (e.g., lift its hoof)
•Improved mood due to positive interactions with an animal
•Increased awareness of connection to nature through outdoor experiences

Which is all well and good, and no doubt there can be valuable lessons learned from equine therapy. (Although I must say that my cat has taught me everything and more that I need to know about point #2. The horse might be larger, but my cat has claws! :) ) Yet that still doesn't mean that EAP is an empirically-supported treatment. I find valuable lessons in coloring mandalas, in watching Grey's Anatomy and House, in crochet, in Sudoku puzzles. Not that these things can't be helpful, but it's a long stretch to say that these actually treat eating disorder symptoms.

I do realize that places like Remuda Ranch don't rely on horses alone for their treatment. But you better believe that EAP is one of the reasons they charge so much. Why pay extra for something that doesn't really work? Why not let your kid take horseback riding lessons or go trail riding once their ED symptoms have improved?

Anestis sums up his thoughts as follows:

I like the idea of using animals to make people feel better. In fact, Joye and I may one day train our sweet playful golden retriever to visit hospital patients in order to provide them with an added moment of happiness. In doing so, however, we will not be under the illusion that such an action would constitute therapy or treat mental illnesses. Our dog would simply provide a positive experience, which can impact mood and perhaps motivate an otherwise ambivalent individual to pursue the type of help capable of addressing the actual problem. When animal-assisted therapy is couched in these terms, it sounds wonderful. When it is presented as a stand alone treatment, however, that is a problem.

I don't think, however, that Aria would be very good at visiting hospital patients. Hiding under their beds and peeing, yes. Therapeutic, not so much.
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