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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Letter to Florida About Proposed Use of "Alternative Therapies" for Veterans

The Honorable Dana Young
Chair, Health Policy Committee
404 S. Monroe St.
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1100

Dear Ms. Young:

A Florida colleague has told me about Bill 23-00010-18 and I am writing to comment on the proposed provision of “alternative therapies” to veterans.

Let me note first that “alternative therapies” are by definition treatments that are unsupported by an acceptable empirical evidence basis. If they were supported by evidence of safety and effectiveness, these treatments would simply be called “therapies”. Veterans and all citizens deserve help to insure that their investments of time and resources into treatments are protected by evidence of treatment effectiveness. The only people whose best interests are served by provision of “alternative therapies” are the “alternative therapists” themselves.

The proposed use of “equine therapy” for veterans is a a good example of service to “alternative therapists” rather than to veterans. Treatment by horseback riding was originally used as a means of gentle stretching of contracted muscles for children with cerebral palsy and the sequelae of other diseases like polio. Horseback riding was effective for these purposes and was enjoyable and interesting for the children, which helped them tolerate discomfort they might feel. Within the last 20 years or so, however, enthusiasts of horseback riding began to propose that if riding was good for children with cerebral palsy (who may appear to be mentally limited even though they are often not), it should also be good for autistic children or for children whose disturbances were clearly emotional. One “equine therapist” has even claimed that the horse’s gait is “downloaded” to a disturbed child’s brain, thereby normalizing brain functioning, and that horses can tell whether a person is lying to another person; there is no evidence to support these claims, which are in fact rather bizarre.

The proposal that “equine therapy” be used for veterans’ emotional disorders has simply been generalized from the unsupported claims made about the treatment as it has been used for children. If a veteran has contracted thigh muscles as a result of nervous system or other injury, yes, horseback riding may provide helpful stretching. If a veteran is bored and limited in what he or she can do, horseback riding can be fun and rewarding. But these possible benefits for some veterans do not mean that “equine therapy” is effective treatment for PTSD or any other mental disorder, or that it should be supported or even encouraged by the state of Florida..

I hope you will take these points into consideration with respect to 23-00010-18. I would be happy to discuss these issues further if that would be helpful.

Yours sincerely,

Jean Mercer, Ph.D.
Professor Emerita of Psychology, Stockton University, Galloway, NJ


  1. Sounds like Dr. Dolittle Talk-to-the-Animals Therapy!

    1. Maybe more like the Houhynyms (if I remember how to spell this word)-- more noble and intelligent than humans.