Equine Therapy for Addiction: Healing Through Horses
Equine therapy, or horse-assisted therapy, is being adopted by more and more drug rehabilitation centres as an effective treatment for addiction. You may be wondering, how could therapy with a horse help treat someone with addiction?
The truth is, this form of therapy appears to be incredibly effective for many people in recovery. Read on to discover how equine therapy works, and why it may be so powerful in helping to heal you.
What is equine therapy?
Equine therapy dates back centuries. Ancient Greek literature from 600 B.C. discusses horseback riding as a form of therapy. Today, equine therapy, or animal-assisted therapy, is a form of therapy in which the client regularly interacts and engages with a horse in order to meet therapeutic goals.
In some programmes, equine-assisted therapy is focused on the client simply spending time with the horses. In other programmes, the client is responsible for feeding, grooming, and taking care of the horse. Additionally, some treatment programmes involve clients engaging in horseback riding.
Equine therapy is used to help work through the emotional and psychological issues a person may not be able to face during traditional talk therapy. This is a subdivision of animal-assisted therapy, in which clients engage and interact with a variety of animals which can include dogs, cats, rabbits, and more.
Although various animals can be used in animal-assisted therapy, horses have become quite popular due to the immediate feedback they provide.
How does equine therapy work?
Horses are particularly sensitive to a person's emotional state. A specialised therapist is able to gather information and understand what a client may be experiencing, simply by observing the horse's responses to that client.
Whether a client is expressing emotions, pushing them down, or isn't even aware that they exist, a horse can pick up on a client's emotional state and act as a mirror for what they are experiencing. Because of this, the horse can help the client to gain insight, understanding, and a deeper sense of self-awareness.
Additionally, clients generally view horses as being non-judgmental and unconditionally loving. This helps them to open up and drop their defences. It allows them to feel vulnerable and engage with the horse.
This vulnerability can be incredibly important when it comes to accessing various thoughts and emotions. Furthermore, the positive relationship that develops between the horse and the client helps lead to positive treatment outcomes.
Activities engaged in during equine-assisted therapy often address the following:
- Communication skills
- Body awareness
With this understanding of how equine therapy works, it’s important to assess whether this form of therapy is actually effective.
Is equine therapy effective?
Many studies indicate equine therapy appears to be very effective. One study revealed that women who received equine therapy were able to develop increased levels of self-awareness and self-esteem. This in turn helped them end toxic relationships.
Another study conducted in 2018 on people struggling with schizophrenia, anxiety, personality disorders, and affective disorders, found that participants reported higher levels of self-esteem and ability to cope.
Additionally, a separate study conducted in 2016 showed that participants receiving equine therapy for addiction experienced positive outcomes post-intervention. The participants felt that equine-assisted therapy was a nice break from traditional talk therapy. They reported feeling motivated to attend therapy so they could be with the horses. They further stated that going to the stable was something they looked forward to.
Participants also reported that being with the horses helped them become more present, and worry less. Some participants reported that their relationships with others improved, as well.
Participants also reported feeling positive about doing something productive and feeling a sense of responsibility. They reported feeling safer and more seen by their therapists in this setting than they did with traditional therapists.
What conditions can equine therapy help with?
There is growing research indicating the effectiveness of equine therapy for addiction and its ability to treat a variety of conditions. More and more rehab programmes and outpatient facilities are incorporating equine therapy into their treatment.
Conditions that can be treated with equine therapy include:
- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD
- Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, or ADHD
- Eating disorders
- Behavioural issues
- Dissociative disorders
- Some chronic illnesses
- Communication problems
- Relationship problems
It’s apparent that equine therapy can help with a number of issues, but why is it so helpful in treating addiction?
Why is equine therapy being used to treat addiction?
There are many reasons why equine therapy is being used to help treat those with addictive disorders recover. These include:
It can be difficult for many people struggling with addiction to find the motivation to engage in treatment. However, being open to engaging in treatment makes a huge difference in treatment outcomes. This is because if somebody does not want to engage in the treatment, it will be more difficult for them to be open-minded. Fortunately, equine therapy is a unique form of treatment that can motivate those struggling with addiction to attend therapy. People typically enjoy engaging with the horses and feel a lot less pressured. Clients enjoy this alternative form of therapy, and like that it doesn’t feel like traditional therapy.
Equine-assisted therapy is a great option for people who have difficulty opening up, or simply don't want to talk. As they become more comfortable in the horse’s presence, they become more comfortable opening up and sharing.
Additionally, many in addiction recovery have trouble accessing their emotions, let alone understanding them. Fortunately, the horse’s mirroring ability provides insight to the therapist into a client’s emotional state.
Furthermore, many in addiction recovery struggle with feeling judged by others. However, many people don't feel this way when they're around a horse. They feel accepted and trusted by the horse. This can create feelings of confidence and security, and even self-efficacy.
Addiction is not a surface-level issue and is composed of many complex layers. With equine therapy, clients can access deeper parts of themselves, uncovering various experiences that could have played a part in their addiction.
Connection and responsibility
Many with addiction struggle with feeling isolated and disconnected. They feel like no one understands what they're going through, and struggle with feeling alone. Working with a horse consistently helps provide a sense of connection for someone who is struggling.
Additionally, some rehab programmes offering equine therapy for addiction involve the client taking care of the horse's basic needs, such as feeding them. This gives them something new to focus on and helps them feel important and productive.
Because the horse mirrors a person's emotions, if a client is feeling angry or fearful, they will be able to see these emotions in the horse. Although this helps them gain insight into their own emotional state, it also invokes a sense of responsibility to help the horse feel calm.
This helps a person learn that they can go from feeling angry or fearful to feeling calm by becoming aware of their own thoughts and shifting them intentionally. Many recovering from addiction have trouble regulating their emotions and observing their thoughts. However, equine therapy for addiction helps them become more present and learn how to intentionally shift how they feel.
8 benefits of equine therapy
Below are some of the benefits of using equine therapy for addiction treatment:
1. Building relationships
Equine therapy help to develop a healthy relationship between a person and the horse. Therefore, learning how to interact in this way spills over into the client's life, helping them build better relationships with the people around them. Additionally, Equine therapy helps clients build strong and healthy relationships with their therapists, which can help improve treatment outcomes.
2. Developing confidence
Equine therapy helps clients develop confidence, which is particularly helpful in recovery from addiction. Unfortunately, many in recovery struggle with low self-esteem. Having low confidence can contribute to addiction, just as addiction can contribute to having low confidence. Fortunately, clients develop confidence through their interactions with horses, when they realise that their emotions have the power to positively affect the horse's emotions. Additionally, taking care of the horse and providing it with what it needs also helps instil a sense of confidence.
3. Regulating emotions
Equine therapy for addiction helps with regulating emotions. This means not only understanding emotions, but not letting emotions become overwhelming. This also means learning how to shift out of negative emotional states. Clients in equine therapy benefit due to the inherent feedback they receive from the horse. When a client becomes aware that a horse is mirroring their emotional state, they change their emotional state to help calm the horse. Therefore, this teaches clients that they have within them the power to shift their emotions. Something that is incredibly important in recovery from addiction.
4. Understanding Boundaries
Equine therapy helps clients better understand boundaries. So, if a horse appears fearful or uncomfortable, a client can assess what they may be doing to contribute to this . They can then establish a boundary that is mutually beneficial. Learning about boundaries is incredibly important because many in addiction recovery have never experienced boundaries in a healthy way. Therefore, taking this skill into their everyday lives will help clients to separate themselves from unhealthy relationships. It will also show them how to create healthy boundaries to protect their own peace.
Equine therapy assists with becoming more mindful and present. This is because there is a focus on the horse, the horse's behaviour, and a person's own behaviour. When taking care of the horse, a person is focused on feeding the horse or walking it to and from the stable. This helps a client develop a sense of presence. This is incredibly important, as those in recovery often worry about the future, or ruminate about the past. Being present with the horse allows the mind to quieten, and evokes a sense of calm.
Equine therapy helps clients develop a connection with another living being. Unfortunately, many in recovery from addiction struggle with feeling alone. Those feelings of isolation dissipate when the connection between human and horse is formed. Additionally, when the client experiences unconditional love and nonjudgment from a horse, it helps them form similar connections with people around them.
7. Increased positive emotions
Simply put, equine therapy can help a person feel happy. Being around the horses gives someone something to look forward to, as this is something they genuinely enjoy. In this way, equine therapy helps increases positive emotions. This is paramount to addiction recovery, as experiencing stress and difficult emotions are what often lead to relapse.
8. Builds self-awareness
Equine therapy helps to develop self-awareness in multiple ways. Working with horses teaches a person about their own emotional state and their own behaviours. Clients also developed a heightened awareness of how they interacted with the horses. Therefore, they can utilise the skills of how they interact with the horses to improve their level of self-awareness when they interact with other people.
Additionally, many can observe their own feelings and thoughts in their everyday life as a result of engaging in equine therapy. This awareness of one's own thoughts and feelings can ultimately help prevent relapse.
A final word on equine therapy for addiction recovery
Equine therapy is a great option to help you on your journey through recovery from addiction.
Not only will it help you understand yourself on a deeper level, but it can be incredibly relaxing, decrease stress, and increase the amount of joy in your life.
We can't deny the therapeutic effect of being around animals, and incorporating this work into your recovery programme can be beneficial in some truly profound ways.
Author - Thurga