Equine Therapy for Refugees
Refugees go through a lot on their way to a new country. Their conflict-ridden home countries uproot them and thrust them into a whole new culture. Before, during and after migration, this trauma can have a lasting effect. Equine therapy for refugees is an innovative but highly effective new approach to mental health that is worth considering for any country with a high refugee population.

The Impact of War

Before would-be refugees even have the chance to flee their home countries, they often experience trauma. Seeing war and violence firsthand puts them at a higher risk than the general population for developing anxiety disorders, mood disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Resettlement in a new country can spur attachment disorders, and worsen anxiety and depression.

It can be hard to measure the prevalence of PTSD and similar disorders in refugees. This is largely because of communication barriers, which may prevent complete understanding or development of trust between refugees and mental health professionals. Estimates have determined that the percentage of refugees experiencing PTSD is anywhere between 4% and 86%.

Symptoms of PTSD can vary. But in general, the diagnostic criteria includes:

  • Flashbacks (unwanted, intrusive memories of traumatic event(s).
  • Severe emotional response to stimuli that is reminiscent of traumatic event(s).
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world.
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships.
  • Feelings of being sad, hopeless or numb.
  • Hypervigilance.

Many more symptoms exist and each person experiencing trauma will present differently. However, no matter what, it is clear that many, if not most, refugees leave their home countries with severe emotional damage.

The Healing Powers of Horses

Horses have been tools in therapy since the days of the Ancient Greeks. Hippocrates himself noted the therapeutic effects of interacting with horses. To this day, the goal of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is to foster a bond between humans and horses that is soothing and teaches skills such as emotional regulation and self-confidence.

Horses can perceive human emotion in a way other humans cannot. A horse can tell if its rider is anxious or sad and respond a certain way. This is not only a measurable occurrence, it can teach one how to regulate and control strong emotions. Increased self-confidence, improved emotional regulation, improved sense of trust and feelings of connection are all among the benefits of EAP.

How Equine Therapy Can Help Refugees

Equine therapy for refugees can help with the wide range of mental health issues that a refugee may face. Refugee populations struggle with trauma and mental anguish; self-harm, suicide attempts, aggression and issues with anxiety and depression are common.

EAP’s benefits show how horses can be an effective treatment for this trauma. Equine therapy for refugees is not just a sound idea in theory though, evidence has shown that it works. The United Pony Caravan provided weekly equine therapy to refugees in Greece and saw the effects right away. The horses act as a link between the refugee and the therapist; through the horse, the refugee experiences love, respect and confidence.

Equine therapy for refugees is a shelter in the storm of trauma. It provides an outlet for a myriad of emotions and fosters self-confidence and respect. Through equine therapy, refugees experiencing trauma can learn to self-regulate their emotions, and, bit by bit, begin to heal.

Maddey Bussmann
Photo: Flickr