Equine Assisted Learning

EAL, Equine Assisted Learning, is a unique experiential learner centered program that promotes the development of healthy life skills for educational, professional, and personal development through equine-assisted activities, in other words, the horse is the teacher. The facilitator led exercises incorporates the horse into a “group” or “team” for hands-on interactive challenges. Most of the EAL activities are performed from the ground, so there is no saddle required. EAL helps to improve overall life skills and can also be tailored to help overcome specific life challenges.

In an EAL setting, the experiential approach integrates horse to human interaction that is guided by a planned, objective driven learning experience to meet the identified goals of the participant(s). Learning with horses provides an opportunity to teach critical life skills such as trust, respect, honesty, and communication.

Horses are among the most intuitive of teachers. As a prey animal, horses are sensitive to their environment and everyone who surrounds them for their survival. They ask for leadership and direction. As teachers, they react to the slightest change both positive and negative. They sense changes in the posture, breathing and body language of animals and people around them. They provide constant nonverbal feedback based on the energy provided by the participants. This allows them to respond honestly and to be non-judgemental of our conscious and unconscious feelings and behaviours. This can help participants to better understand and learn how our non-verbal communication might be impacting or influencing others in their lives. Horses ask people to be mindful of their surroundings and to stay in the moment at all times.

EAL (Equine Assisted Learning) Benefits

EAL has been used in treatment programs for children, teenagers, and adults of all ages. EAL can be programed for a wide variety of conditions, such as, substance abuse, addiction, mood disorders, behaviour disorders, eating disorders, delayed learning, PTSD, depression, ADD/ADHD, autism, grief/loss, trauma, compulsive behaviour, bipolar, depression, etc.

Here are some areas that have shown improvement documented from EAL progressive programs:

  • Assertiveness
  • Emotional awareness
  • Empathy
  • Stress tolerance
  • Flexibility
  • Impulse control
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Self-actualization
  • Independence
  • Self-regard
  • Social responsibility
  • Interpersonal relationships

There are five main lessons to learn through working with horses

  1. Identifying and coping with feelings
    Many people who have troubles with addiction or other mental health problems have an issue with identifying and coping with their feelings. This is likely due to the past, when drugs were used in attempt to numb the sadness, anger, fear, or happiness. It is key that the first step is identifying your feelings and how to deal with them. Horses are able to identify emotions and react accordingly, so it is essential to approach them with openness while remaining calm, otherwise you may end up triggering the horse to react the same way you are feeling.
  2. Communication and interpersonal skills
    Those who struggle with addiction or have a mental health issue tend to be emotionally underdeveloped. It is usually difficult for them to get close to others and open up. However, they find it easier to bond with horses. Horses do not speak and cannot judge you. Exercises such as haltering, leading, and grooming teach individuals how to approach others with awareness and respect and really improve their overall communication and interpersonal skills. Equine therapy is also often used in a team building setting because horses show interpersonal behaviors and the therapy tends to be goal oriented so the group must work together to achieve the common goal.
  3. Setting boundaries
    It is important to learn that horses need space to feel comfortable. Horses make it evident that a boundary has been crossed. Trying to dominate or control a horse will not work and being passive towards them may also make it difficult to lead them.
  4. Overcoming fears
    Horses can be a scary animal. Their large size and strength can bring up past trauma or an overwhelming feeling of a lack of control. People are fearful that the horse could hurt them. Facing one’s fears and overcoming them are one of the hardest things for people to do. Many people feel intimidated and nervous when they first come around horses, but, they build the confidence and overcome the challenge. They find comfort in the horse and build a strong connection.
  5. Trust
    Horses do not judge. They are gentle animals. Not only do you have to trust the horse, but the horse has to trust you. This interaction can be healing because it teaches you how to trust again if you previously lost the capability of it.

Other benefits of equine therapy include learning to take responsibility, how to care for oneself or others, patience and calmness, humility, and appreciation for the simple things in life that we tend to take for granted. Equine therapy is a holistic approach to treating addiction, meaning the therapy addresses the whole body, including the mental, emotional, and physical health of the individual.


"Evaluation of an equine-assisted therapy program for veterans who identify as ‘wounded, injured or ill’ and their partners", PLOS ONE
"Worldwide, there are now more than 600 equine-assisted therapy programs designed for patients with a broad range of psychological and physical conditions. Equine-assisted therapy is an adjunct intervention that incorporates experiential activities with horses within a traditional therapeutic framework (such as cognitive behavioural therapy or relational Gestalt therapy) to treat a range of psychiatric symptoms and disorders. Research has assessed the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy programs, equine-assisted activities as well as therapeutic horse riding aimed at reducing psychological symptoms. Participants of these programs have reported reduced anxiety and depression symptoms, reduced PTSD symptoms, elevated self-esteem and self-awareness, improved communication and trust, and increased overall well-being."
"Equine-Assisted Learning in Mental Health Care: A Natural Fit with Recreation Therapy?", University of Waterloo, written by Anna-Marie Duffy
“A process that utilizes functional intervention, education, and recreation participation to enable persons with physical, cognitive, emotional, and/or social limitations to acquire and/or maintain the skills, knowledge, and behaviours that will allow them to enjoy their leisure optimally, function independently with the least amount of assistance, and participate as fully as possible in society.” (Therapeutic Recreation Ontario, 2017, para. 1)
"Examination of Equine Assisted Learning in the Healing of First Nations Youth from Solvent Abuse", written by Colleen Anne Dell, Research Chair in Substance Abuse, Department of Sociology University of Saskatchewan, Darlene Chalmers, Faculty of Social Work, University of Regina, Debra Dell, Coordinator, Youth Solvent Addiction Committee, Ernie Sauve, Executive Director, White Buffalo Youth Inhalant Treatment Centre, Sturgeon Lake First Nation, Tamara MacKinnon, Program Director, Cartier Equine Learning Centre
“Given the horse’s superior intuitive nature, direct interaction with it is a unique experience. Yorke (2003, p. 2) describes the essential difference between horses and humans based on categories of predator and prey, in that “humans are predators and horses are prey which has required a significant degree of trust despite domestication.” The horse’s intuitive nature has evolved as a mere function of survival; it is constantly attuned to its surroundings and the subtle communication within the herd as a response to ever-changing environments. In this way, horses have been observed to have acute communication skills within their social structures and highly adaptive behavioural responses within those structures (MacKinnon, 2007). Thus, the horse has the ability to respond intuitively to human behaviour and intent, which results in immediate feedback from the animal (Frame, 2006; Graham, 2007; Hallberg, 2004; Kersten and Thomas, 1997; MacKinnon, 2007; Shultz, 2005; Tramutt, 2003). This response creates opportunities for an EAL participant to react both cognitively and behaviourally in relation to the cues from the horse. In the broadest sense, EAL is an approach aimed at increasing life skills through hands-on doing, and has been identified as useful in building communication, problem-solving, and team building skills, as well as enhancing personal awareness and a sense of self (MacKinnon, 2007; NARHA; Rothe et. al., 2005).