Equine therapy seeks participants

By Brent Constantin

A University of Calgary PhD student is riding on a new form of therapy to help women with eating disorders.

Psychology student Hillary Sharpe is looking for several women to participate in her study on equine-facilitated counselling. Sharpe said current treatments for eating disorders are limited and she hopes to help women who might not be served by traditional options.

“There’s not a whole lot of treatment in terms of eating disorders,” said Sharpe. “The big one right now is CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, and there’s just so much we don’t know in terms of what CBT can do.”

Sharpe explained equine-facilitated counselling provides something beyond traditional talk therapy.

“There’s this one specific type of treatment and it doesn’t work for everybody,” Sharpe said. “For those people that it does work for, we’re not sure how long lasting the effects are.”

A 2010 paper authored by McGill department of psychiatry associate professor Gail Myhr argued CBT treatment is just as effective as medication for major depressive and anxiety disorders, is associated with higher patient satisfaction and should receive additional funding from the Canadian health system.

EFT is a form of animal-assisted therapy where participants spend a session of about an hour outside or being in a stable with a horse.

“You’re engaging in equine activities such as grooming the horse or riding the horse,” said Sharpe. “There’s also a counsellor there to process what’s going on at a bodily level.”

Sharpe said the therapy is appealing to many women because of how horses respond to human emotions. She said because horses are hunted in nature, they’ve had to become hyper-aware of their environment and are able to pick up on feelings.

“I think for a lot of women with eating disorders, there’s a sense of stuffing down your emotions so you’re kind of ignoring these negative emotions like anxiety and depression and loneliness,” she said. “So when you bring a horse into the mix, what the horse does is it makes you more aware of those emotions.”

Sharpe said this type of treatment is very new, starting in the late 1970s. There are now only a few treatment centres in the United States and Canada.

As part of her dissertation, Sharpe is offering free equine-facilitated therapy at the end of April on Tuesday evenings and is hoping to recruit eight to 10 women who have eating disorders.

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