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Equine Therapy For Mental Health And Addiction Treatment

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

Medically reviewed by

Debra Wallace, MA.Ed, LPCC-S, LICDC-CS

February 5, 2019

Equine therapy has been used for many years to help survivors of trauma and abuse, as well as those with developmental issues or mental health disorders including addiction. Working with horses under the guidance of trained professionals can help addicted individuals heal, gain trust, and foster personal growth.

What Is Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy works on a simple premise: horses do not lie and they don’t trust those who exhibit dishonest behaviors or emotions. People tend to feel a ‘gut instinct’ when something just doesn’t feel right. When this happens, people might take a step back, get anxious, or turn away.

This is the basic idea behind equine therapy. A horse can tell if something feels off and will react accordingly. The horse’s reactions help individuals look within themselves so that they can uproot the negative states which foster substance abuse.

Equine therapy is about getting out of the head and into the body, and feeling what is happening rather than rationalizing it. This process can have a profound impact on people and serves to help someone identify those moments in life when they are not being true to themselves or others, or when someone is not being upfront with them.

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Working with a 1,000-pound animal can seem intimidating, but the horses used in these sessions are well-grounded, calm, and not easily startled or likely to cause harm. Therapy sessions are brief, repeated as needed, and have an immediate and lasting impact on those who participate.

Programs are facilitated by treatment centers or through private workshops. For most people, the greatest benefit lies with participation in a formal program. In an individualized inpatient drug rehab program, these sessions are created to work in conjunction with the other methods and behavioral therapies in treatment. A holistic, integrated approach offers the best chance of sobriety and a stable recovery.

How Horses Help With Mental Health Issues

Horses are like living, breathing biofeedback machines. A biofeedback machine is a tool used in therapy which measures the impact your emotional and mental state has on your body and brain, reflecting their impact back to you in real time.

From biofeedback therapy, clients learn to better moderate their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in a way which reduces negativity and enhances calm, focused positivity. If a person is feeling tense and closed off, the horse may shy away from them. As an individual begins to relax and cultivate a more balanced state, the horse will be more receptive and move nearer to them, helping the person learn to exist more frequently in positive states.

Horses also have zero tolerance for lying or false promises. A horse will never lie to a person; and likewise, a person knows if he or she is lying to the horse. Yet a horse can easily detect the subtle changes in a person’s body and demeanor that suggest false behavior.

The horse doesn’t specifically know a person is lying about drug or alcohol abuse but recognizes when a person is hiding something, responding on instinct by moving away or through other movements or vocalization.

When horses do allow individuals to come close and begin to make contact with them, whether it be through grooming or petting, these actions help people relieve stress and boost mood-enhancing chemicals, including endorphins and dopamine. Research shows that human and horse contact also releases oxytocin, a chemical which reduces anxiety and increases a sense of trust and focused calm.

Why Are Horses Good Therapy Animals?

Horses are prey animals, meaning in the wild they have to be on the constant look-out for predators. By instinct, horses view humans as predators, too. Due to this, horses are highly attuned to their environment and those within it. Horses are highly-evolved animals capable of picking up on nuances in body language, mood, and intention. This quality makes them highly valuable in helping someone get to the root of their struggles, even without the use of language.

Horses can actually smell emotional shifts through a specialized portion of their nose because our emotions actually cause shifts in our physiological functioning.

Primarily, horses are non-verbal communicators, which means they rely on body posture as much or more than sound to communicate how they are feeling—their gut instinct is magnified a hundredfold by the way they carry themselves.

Horses are also very sensitive to a human’s non-verbal cues. A person’s body language and emotional and mental states give horses the greatest clues as to what that person is feeling. The body language of a horse is like a mirror which reflects back an individual’s state of mind, insecurities, and fears in a way which promotes personal growth and healing.

What Happens During An Equine Therapy Session?

Equine therapy is a transformative tool whether the individual has been working with horses for years or has never seen one face to face.

During an equine therapy session, in most cases, the individual won’t be asked to ride the horse. Though certain programs may offer therapeutic riding, the majority of therapy sessions revolve around other interactions with the horse. These may include:

  • feeding
  • grooming
  • ground exercises
  • haltering them
  • leading them around

Usually the horse, client, and therapist(s) will enter a round pen or circular enclosure. During this process, the trained therapist will be nearby in case the individual becomes uncomfortable or has questions.

Individuals in equine therapy will typically not be asked to say anything at first. Instead, when they enter the enclosure they’ll slowly approach the horse. At this time, the horse will begin working on its own assessment. They’ll notice whether the individual is full of anxiety, anger, or uncertainty, or whether they appear calm and confident.

If equine therapy participants are experiencing damaging mindsets, the horse may begin tossing its head or pacing. This action shows that it’s agitated from the negative emotions the individual is portraying. A horse knows if a person doesn’t want to do the groundwork, or if a person is hiding feelings, which it perceives as a threat.

Benefits Of Equine Therapy For Addiction

Equine therapy is an incredible and empowering experience. When the process takes place in small-group or individual settings, the bonds between horses and human participants is strong and supportive. Participants learn to rely more fully on themselves and to recognize and tap into personal growth.

A drug and alcohol addiction changes the way a person relates to other people. Friends, family members, and coworkers may become like strangers to addicted individuals as substance abuse takes over. A good treatment program allows clients to heal these wounded relationships by teaching them enhanced interpersonal skills, effective communication, and how to create and maintain healthy boundaries.

Healing from addiction can seem daunting, and it can be hard to open up and trust others when many struggling with addiction may have a hard time trusting themselves. Equine therapy is a valuable tool which can help individuals build the positive states of mind and behavior which are so vital within a grounded recovery.

Equine therapy aids individuals in developing self-confidence, self-love, and self-reliance. Not only will equine therapy help a person grow on a personal level, but it fosters health in relationships as well.

Equine Therapy As Addiction Treatment

As a drug and alcohol addiction takes hold, a person begins to ignore their basic health and wellness needs. Eating well and staying hydrated fall to the wayside. Grooming, bathing, and dressing properly become irritations or unimportant, when a person can think only of finding and using their drug of choice. Self-care helps people maintain physical and mental health, and without self-care, these states can rapidly decline.

As equine therapy participants take care of the horse’s basic needs, they learn a greater appreciation for the role of self-care and nurturing within their own lives. While there may be fear and apprehension in the beginning of treatment, there is love, trust, and a greater awareness of self at the finish. This transition enhances the personal growth a good inpatient treatment program should instill in your recovery.

The Guardian - Not just horsing around … psychologists put their faith in equine therapies

Horses & Humans Research Foundation - Basic neurobiological and psychological mechanisms underlying therapeutic effects of Equine Assisted Activities (EAA/T)

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