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Equine Therapy

Alternative to Meds Editorial Team
Medically Reviewed by Libby Smith PhD

Benefits of Equine Therapy

Horses and people have developed an exceptionally symbiotic relationship over centuries of human and equine interaction. Owners and aficionados alike often express deeply valued benefits from spending time “at the barn,” citing some surprising and perhaps unexpected perks. Is it any wonder, then, that equine therapy is an effective therapeutic tool?

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
~ Winston Churchill

Equine-Assisted Therapy with “Dr. Libby”

Equine Assisted Therapy dr libbyMy name is Dr. Libby Smith and I am fortunate to be the therapist at Alternative to Meds Center (ATMC) and work with the clients at our center.

Of the many alternative modalities at ATMC, Equine-Assisted Therapy is a program we offer clients. Our participants have an opportunity to partner and play with horses one or more times during the duration of their stay. I have been involved in Equine-Assisted Wellness for ten years. I am CEO and owner of Wind Horse Wellness LLC. I served as Co-Chair of The Certification Board for Equine Interaction Professionals and held certification as an Equine Interaction Professional. I also hold a “Safety Award” for diligence and attention to the safety of horses and humans.

Today, many are seeing the value in horses beyond their involvement on ranches, in rodeos, and equestrian competitions. Horses are now being employed as teachers, coaches, and even therapists. One of the reasons for this shift in perception is because of the horse’s ability to serve as quintessential mirrors showing us our basic and core beliefs, ideas, and thoughts about ourselves and the world in which we live. Without a doubt, I believe that horses effect genuine transformation regarding ourselves, our relationships, and our environments.

At ATMC we offer evidenced-based treatment modalities and within the Equine arena, the therapy of choice is Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy (GEP). Let’s explore this amazing modality a bit deeper as we enter a world where horses and humans create undeniably powerful and lasting connections.

Gestalt Therapy

Gestalt therapy is grounded in existential and humanistic approaches to the human experience (Murdock, 2013). Research in successful treatment modalities supports Gestalt Therapy (GT) as a solid approach to psychotherapy (Murdock, 2013). It is experiential in its design as we experience the world through myriad ways, and therefore create our own realities. Gestalt Therapy explores feelings, cultural background, gender, desires, wants and needs, memories, beliefs, and feelings (Kirby, 2010). Transformation, awareness of the present moment, and the meanings we give our experiences are all profound components of GT.

The focus of this therapeutic modality is on the physical symptoms expressed by clients and explores the relationship between the mind and body in an effort to view the client from both a present and a holistic perspective (Kirby, 2010). Gestalt Therapy is used for a plethora of conditions. Anxiety, sleep disorders, social isolation, depression, and loss of appetite are just a few of the challenges that are treated with GT (Yontef, 2002).

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Strategies for Intervention and Treatment

Gestalt Therapy is not necessarily one that utilizes talk therapy as much as it observes the actions of the client (Kirby, 2010). Through the utilization of an experiential strategy, clients may come to form a connection to self and to others, as well as, find new meaning in their lives. Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy (GEP) is offered to our clients at Alternatives to Meds Center as it creates opportunities for transformation, an enhanced sense of well-being, and aids with physical and mental challenges. The reasons for choosing this modality are because it is evidence-based and reveals a plethora of documented research showcasing its high level of efficacy.

Observing clients interface with horses helps determine patterns of behavior through observing their interactions with horses. Horses can stir strong feelings, uncover deep desires, reveal projections, and highlight transference. Horses are naturally in the present moment and Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy (GEP) provides a platform for clients to form an authentic connection to horses. Being in the presence of horses, clients have opportunities to reflect on their relationships, create self-awareness, and, connect with their body, energy, and emotions (Kirby, 2010).

One of the most positive attributes of Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy is that it can be applied to short term counseling sessions (Yontef, 2002). My role as a GEP therapist is likened to an in-office session in that the goal is to help clients gain a sense of awareness, establish connections, address major patterns of behavior, and provide meaning to their lives through an experiential modality.


equine therapy oxytocin hormoneFrom a neuroscience perspective, a factor highlighting the social behavior of humans and animals has been observed in the release of oxytocin in the brain. Produced in the hypothalamus, oxytocin serves as both as a neurotransmitter and hormone. Oxytocin promulgates trust and decreases anxiety by affecting the amygdala and has often been referred to as the “bonding hormone” (Neumann, 2008).

When humans interact with horses, increased levels of oxytocin have been discovered. These increases show enhanced levels of empathy, trust, and learning abilities. In addition, fear, anxiety, and even physical pain levels are reduced. This information is of particular relevance for substance use disorder clients whose self-confidence, social interaction skills, and support networks have been negatively affected by their addiction (Neumann, 2008).

As an Equine-Assisted Therapist, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that this form of GEP is highly effective in helping our clients overcome many of the challenges they face. When asked how Equine-Assisted Therapy works, my answer is, ‘I don’t know exactly how it works; I just know it works exactly!’

1. Kirby, M., (2010). Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy. Gestalt Journal of Australia and New Zealand. 6,(2). 60-68.

2. Mackewn, J., (1997). Developing Gestalt Counselling: A Field Theoretical and Relational Model of Contemporary Gestalt Counselling and Psychotherapy. London, England. SAGE Publications Ltd

3. Murdock, N. L., (2013). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: A case approach, 3rd Edition. Boston, Massachusetts. Pearson Education, Inc.

4. Neumann, I.D., (2008). “Brain Oxytocin: A Key Regulator of Emotional and Social Behaviours in Both Females and Males.” Journal of Endocrinology, 20 (6).

5. Yontef, G., (2002). The Relational Attitude in Gestalt Therapy Theory and Practice. International Gestalt Journal. 25, (1), 15-35

Originally Published Sep 13, 2018 by Libby Smith PhD

This content was written or reviewed by a certified therapist.

Libby Smith Ed.D., Ph.D

Libby Smith or “Dr. Libby” as many of her friends and clients affectionately call her, is an educator, counselor, author, and an Equine-Assisted Therapeutic Practitioner. Libby as two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, and is currently working on a third Master’s in Addiction Counseling at Grand Canyon University. She holds two doctoral degrees:  One in Holistic Theology, and the other in Educational Leadership, with an emphasis on health and sociology, from Northern Arizona University.  

She has been teaching at colleges and universities for over twenty-five years including Northern Arizona University and Wichita State University and has written and published several books including her most recent, “What’s the Matter?” She has been an international speaker at the International Conference for Science and Consciousness. Dr. Libby is certified in Regression Therapy, Life Coaching, Hypnosis, Reiki, and as a Heartmath Practitioner. Her Equine Therapy Business is called Wind Horse Wellness LLC. 

Over the past ten years, she has worked as a counselor in both Behavioral Health and Substance Use arenas and currently works as a Therapist at Alternatives to Meds Center. She is the owner and CEO of Wind Horse Wellness LLC located in Flagstaff, Arizona. She has a heart for service and is honored to be working with the administration, staff, and clients at Alternatives to Meds Center.

Other books she has authored include: Sex Talks Book About More and Doc Talks Pathways Toward Self-Discovery

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