Eating disorders include numerous behaviors such as severely restricting what one eats (Anorexia Nervosa), binge eating and then purging (Bulimia Nervosa), and Binge Eating Disorder, where one being eats without compensation for the food intake. While these are the three most well known disorders, "disordered eating" can also include everything in between--chronic yo-yo dieting, compulsive or emotional eating, etc.
During this week there are two major conferences going on which have relevance for me--the conference for the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP), through which I am certified as a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist, and the conference for the Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association (EAGALA), through which I am certified to do equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP). Thus, it feels relevant to write about how EAP might be useful as an adjunctive treatment for those with various eating disorders.
Eating disorders, along with other self-destructive and behavioral difficulties, are known to be attempts to regulate emotional distress. It is not clearly known how this works, and besides, is a whole different paper in itself, but in the short term, manipulation of food intake calms distress and anxious feelings. This is also often the case in those who use substances, compulsively shop, gamble, etc.
Those with eating disorders also typically have severely distorted body image, either resulting in or from low self-esteem, low levels of assertiveness, and poor mindfulness abilities.
We know that horses, with their intensely sensitive nature, can calm and regulate a person simply by standing and breathing. They teach the mindfulness skills necessary to "grab ahold of one's mind" and regulate emotional responses. They live in the moment, teaching us how to do the same. Horses also teach people about assertiveness as horses look to us for guidance and when it's not given horses decide to do their own thing. Thus, assertiveness is needed in letting that horse know what we are looking for.
EAP is a relatively new form of treatment that, I emphasize, as of now, is designed to be adjunctive to a complete eating disorder treatment team, typically consisting of a therapist, dietitian, medical doctor, and psychiatrist, if necessary. EAP is not yet thoroughly researched, but id has been shown to improve many of the areas shown to be deficient in those with eating disorders.
This is where the Essential Strides Program that I offer was born out of. Traditional EAP does not offer as thorough an opportunity for processing, and must be used in adjunct with traditional talk therapy. The Essential Strides Program offers the opportunity to learn through the horse, through actually riding the horse (which many people crave), as well as immediately processing the experience and applying it to clients' lives. This eliminates the need for an outside therapist.
The Essential Strides Program is of course appropriate for all sorts of struggles, but may be one way we can better treat eating disorders as well.