Equine Therapy For Addiction Treatment
Equine therapy has been used for many years to help survivors of trauma, abuse, developmental issues, and those struggling with mental disorders like addiction. Working with a 1,500-pound animal can seem intimidating, but the horses used in these sessions are well grounded, calmer, and not easily startled or likely to cause harm. The sessions are brief, repeated as needed, and have an immediate and lasting impact on those who participate.
What Is Equine Therapy?
Equine therapy works on a simple premise. Horses do not lie and they don’t trust those who lie to them.
Not sure what I mean? You know that ‘gut instinct’ when something just doesn’t feel right? You might take a step back, get anxious, or turn away from what is bothering you. Horses are large prey animals, meaning in the wild, they have to look out for predators who would like to eat them. They are also primarily non-verbal communicators, so a horse relies on body posture and language more than any sound to communicate how they are feeling. In other words, their gut instinct is magnified a hundredfold.
As highly evolved animals capable of picking up on nuances in body language and intention, horses are equally valuable in helping someone get to the root of their struggles without a single word exchanged between horse and human.
Horses also have zero tolerance for lying or false promises. A horse will never lie to you; and likewise, you’ll know if you lie to a horse. Where a human can smile and bold-face lie and say, “I’ve stopped using” or “I’m over it”, a horse can easily detect the subtle changes in your body and demeanor that suggest otherwise.
It’s not that the horse knows you are lying about drugs or alcohol specifically, but that you are hiding something. And in that, it responds on instinct by moving away or letting you know through other movement and even vocalization, that they are not comfortable with you. While this process can be used between horse and human alone, often a specialist is present to help walk you through this process of opening up to the horse and getting to the underlying issues that fuel the addiction and related issues.
During an equine therapy session, you won’t be asked to ride a horse. In fact, equine therapy is useful whether you’ve been working with horses for years, or have never seen one face to face. Sessions last between 15 minutes and half an hour and may occur one or more times during a day, depending on whether the program is facilitated by a treatment center or a private workshop.
Addiction Help And The Herd Mentality
Humans are led by the need to be at the front of the herd constantly, a trait our ego perpetuates (and rarely to our good mental health). Horses have a herd structure and they are comfortable in this hierarchy because for them it isn’t about who is better, but who fits into which role the best. You wouldn’t want an unconfident horse leading the herd, right? The horses fit into different roles around this leader. Those roles aren’t what matter so much to equine therapy as does the concept that they accept who they are, and where they are in life.
Often those struggling with addiction cope with a lot of false ego as they try to gain control over something that is not controllable. In this, they are living a lie, and while they may seem confident on the outside, varying degrees of anxiety and depression soon develop.
Like horses, we have some of the same ability to pick up on falsehoods, both within and outside ourselves, and those falsehoods generate a physical stress reaction. If you are constantly producing your own state of anxiety, equine therapy can help reveal this issue to you, and provide some tools to help you move beyond it.
Horses do not judge and they don’t care whether you truly are in control, or whether you’ve relapsed five times. In fact, equine therapy is about getting out of your head and into your body, feeling what is happening around you, rather than rationalizing it. This can have a profound impact on people, and it serves to help someone identify those moments in life following when they are not being true to themselves or others, or when someone is not being up-front with them.
Equine Therapy Gets To The Root Of Addiction
Equine therapy is unique in that it is truly effective at getting at the root of what fuels an addiction to drugs or alcohol. For some, it ties back to traumas they experienced in their childhood; for others, it’s about control. Whatever the reason someone begins drinking or using, working with a horse can sort through years of denial in a matter of minutes, getting at the raw issues that confront us in those quiet moments when we feel we cannot escape them.
What Does Equine Therapy Look Like?
Usually a horse and human will enter what is known as a round pen, or a circular enclosure. The individual will not be asked to say anything, but simply to enter the enclosure and walk about or stand as they feel comfortable. At this time, the horse will begin working on its own assessment, noticing whether you are full of anxiety, anger, or likely to lash out, or whether you appear calm and confident. If the former, you may notice the horse begin tossing its head or pacing, seeking escape. A horse knows if you don’t want to do the groundwork. It also knows if you are hiding feelings, which it perceives as a threat.
If this happens, the specialist may begin talking you through some questions or exercises to help you open up to the horse. There is no clear cut manner for how this process unfolds. Instead, the therapist will notice the interactions and will likely only intervene where necessary.
I have used equine therapy myself and can tell you it’s an incredible and empowering experience. When the process takes place in small groups, the bonds between horses and humans and within the group is strong and supportive. Where there is fear and apprehension in the beginning, there is love, trust, and a greater awareness at the finish. After only a few sessions, I felt like I had accomplished more in the round pen, than in 10 years of therapy.
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