Equine Therapy for Addiction Treatment

Remaining in treatment for substance use can be difficult. Motivation can be lost despite the best efforts of the client and counselor. That is where equine therapy comes into play. Also known as Horse-Assisted Therapy (HAT), this type of therapy offers vital emotional stimulation and growth thanks to the relationship the client can develop with their horse.

But how exactly does equine therapy for addiction work? What kinds of behavior is monitored, and how might it change? Let’s take a look at how HAT can help clients improve the relationships they have with themselves and their loved ones.

What is equine therapy?

This type of therapy is all about horses. Horses are receptive to the emotional and cognitive needs of their human companions. HAT is certified through two different sources: the EAGLA and the NARHA. Throughout the years, these associations have worked to define terms for what HAT is and how it functions.

This is not simply horseback riding. There is more that goes into it, as horses are highly intelligent creatures that require and reciprocate trust and compassion. Riders have to be responsible for the horses in order for the horses to trust them. Going into it with this expectation can help the relationship between horse and rider flourish.

Whether you are working on a 12-step program or one of its alternatives, HAT can be incorporated into your treatment plan as a way of helping you cope with the difficult emotions that arise during treatment. It can also help you find ways to strengthen the relationships you have with family and friends.

HAT also helps with:

  • Enhancing self-confidence and self-advocacy
  • Balancing internal emotions and feelings
  • Becoming more relaxed and mindful
  • Understanding personal and interpersonal boundaries
  • Developing more positive emotional growth
  • Alleviating negative, unhelpful emotions
  • Gaining more focus and resilience
  • Developing more non-verbal communication skills
  • Feeling needed and developing a connection

Addiction often comes after a person undergoes some sort of traumatic experience, whether it is a blow to their self-confidence or the loss of a loved one. There are many possibilities. But HAT gives people the ability to reconnect with themselves by taking up new responsibilities and forging new bonds with horses.

A History of Equine Therapy

Equine treatment has been a formal means of therapy for decades, but long before that (try about 460 BC), the Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote about the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding. In 1875, a French neurologist named Charles Chassaignac actually studied how horseback riding improved the physical and mood-related symptoms of his patients. By the early 1900s, Oliver Sands was studying equine treatment at Oxford Hospital in the UK, finding that it helped soldiers wounded in battle during World War I.

It wasn’t until 1952 that Danish Olympian Liz Hartel brought this type of therapy to the forefront. She suffered from polio-related paralysis and had used horseback riding as a way to build strength in her legs. By 1969, the British Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) was founded, as was what is now known as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH). They began creating safety guidelines for riders and trained and certified riding instructors. 30 years later, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) was established, offering certification in either Equine Assisted Psychotherapy or Equine Assisted Learning (EAL)within the United States. Today, HAT is widely used and accepted as a beneficial form of treatment.

Related Therapies

Pet-assisted therapy can be conducted and is similar to equine-assisted therapy. The goals are basically the same, but the animals are different. In this therapy, volunteers take their well-trained pets to visit people who need this kind of engagement. This type of therapy can relieve stress and change the productions of neurotransmitters and hormones in the body.

How accepted is equine therapy in the treatment industry?

Equine-assisted therapy has a long history of study as treatment for both physical and psychological conditions. It can help children and adults with everything from Autism Spectrum conditions to eating disorders, from dementia to addiction. Therapists and researchers seem to have a general concurrence that equine-assisted therapy has a lot of benefits and can be used as part of a treatment plan.

The Goal of Equine Treatment

The goal of equine treatment is all about learning how to relax and build trust with another living being. Horses are incredibly receptive and perceptive, which means that riders need to take time to establish relationships and boundaries. Riders must also learn responsibility and accountability. This translates to life outside of treatment and how you establish and maintain relationships with others and with yourself.

How does a session go?

Sessions can be different every time. Like people, horses can be somewhat unpredictable. Some people prefer to stay on the ground and might never ride a horse. However, they reap the benefit of getting to develop positive relationships by taking care of horses. Grooming, feeding, and just petting horses can be therapeutic. Horses are all fed and allowed time to run prior to a session so that they can be relaxed.

You might get to start trotting, riding, and vaulting depending on your comfort level. Your therapist will work with you to ensure that both you and the horse are ready to ride together. Some people only go through a handful of sessions while others stick with it for years; it all depends on how you progress.

How long does this therapy last?

Equine-assisted therapy can last for a few months at the very least. Those who really require time and are showing some progress could stick it out for several years. It also really depends on what your insurance is willing to cover.

What therapies/interventions pair well with this?

What is equine therapy best paired up with, you might be wondering. Equine-assisted treatment can be used in conjunction with other related therapies. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is widely used for treating addiction. CBT is a method for restructuring thought processes, changing them from negative to positive (and unhelpful to helpful, unrealistic to realistic). By retraining you to recognize those distorted thought patterns, you can effectively understand your behavior and thoughts – as well as those of others – even better.

In addition to CBT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) might be used in conjunction with HAT. DBT focuses on developing daily living skills in addition to cognitive restructuring. This can be especially helpful for those battling addiction, as substance use can compromise your ability to perform living skills.

Of course, Medication-Assisted Therapy (MAT) can be used in conjunction with any of these therapies. Depending on the substance you are addicted to, FDA-approved medications might be necessary to help you recover. The goal of these medications is to reduce cravings and normalize the body’s functionality.

Equine therapy for addiction can help you rebuild your relationship with yourself and your loved ones by having you build a trusting bond with a beautiful, intelligent, and intuitive animal. Horses have a long history of providing relief for physical and psychological conditions. We here at Defining Wellness can help you take the steps to recovery and will attest to the power of a horse’s love and trust in aiding in that recovery.