Spending time with animals can be beneficial because of the stress-reducing effects and unconditional love they provide. Equine-assisted therapy is an experiential treatment that helps with a variety of physical and mental health issues. When most people think of animal-assisted treatment, therapy dogs or cats might come to mind. However, horse therapy also provides therapeutic benefits for those struggling with addiction or other issues.
At Ranch Creek Recovery, equine-assisted therapy sessions are used in our holistic approach to addiction treatment. We leverage equine therapy for substance abuse recovery to improve the well-being of our clients.
History of Equine Therapy
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) has been around for thousands of years. Riding horses for treatment purposes has been around since the days of Hippocrates, a Greek physician who wrote about hippotherapy, derived from the Greek term “hippos,” meaning horse. During the 19th century, German physicians adopted the use of horseback riding to reduce the effects of hysteria and hypochondria.
Therapeutic riding was initiated in North America by the Community Association for Riders with Disabilities (CARD) in 1969. Since the 1990s, many mental health facilities have used equine-assisted therapies to promote psychological well-being and other health benefits in both older and young adults. Although other animals are associated with therapy, horses have grown in popularity because of the unique benefits they offer.
How Does Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy Work?
During equine-assisted therapy sessions, clients provide horse care and build connections with the animals. By working with horses and a treatment team, individuals access the therapeutic purposes of equine-assisted activities and learn how to accept themselves and overcome any challenges they’re facing. This is usually done with an equine therapist guiding clients through various activities involving horses.
There are a range of equine-assisted therapy programs that offer different goals and unique benefits. Some programs are used for mental health or addiction treatment, while others provide clients with physical or occupational therapy benefits through horseback riding.
Equine-Assisted Therapy for Mental Health
Equine therapy can be very beneficial for mental health treatment. Participants are typically seeking help for behavioral or emotional problems. They usually work alongside both a mental health professional and a horse specialist to learn how to work with trained horses and provide care. Examples of mental health issues equestrian therapy can treat include:
- Eating disorders
- Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Relationship issues
- Behavioral problems
Equine therapy supports improving self-awareness, self-esteem, empathy and confidence. People typically pair working with horses with other, more traditional therapy treatments, such as experiential or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Horse Therapy for Drug Addiction
Equine-assisted psychotherapy can also be used to help those recovering from an alcohol or drug addiction. Horses are natural pack animals that pick up on the moods and feelings of other creatures around them. Because horses react to how you’re feeling, they provide a connection that differs from the human relationships established in individual or group therapy.
For example, horses rely on humans for their basic needs, such as grooming, food and shelter, which means they can easily be taken advantage of or abused. People may turn to horses for emotional support, recreation or relaxation while taking care of the basic needs of the animal. This creates a situation where trust is established on both sides, and the results can be psychologically rewarding.
By learning how to communicate with a horse, individuals can use equine therapy to raise self-awareness regarding negative thoughts about the self that may be contributing to substance abuse problems. Other benefits of equine therapy include:
- Learning impulse control through exercises requiring a high level of patience and concentration
- Gaining comprehensive social skills
- Improving problem-solving skills when presented with challenging endeavors
Therapeutic Riding Programs
Specialized therapeutic riding programs can also benefit people who need physical therapy, speech therapy or occupational therapy for their health needs. Working alongside a trained professional, such as an occupational therapist, clients use equine-assisted therapy to achieve various goals, depending on their physical needs.
The physical action of horseback riding lessons helps people build strength, balance and spatial awareness, which can lead to improved self-esteem. If a person is unable to sit on a horse, there are equine facilitated therapy programs that provide horse-and-buggy options. A common occupational therapy goal is to enhance dexterity and physical endurance. Equine therapy benefits both of those areas and many more.
Equine-assisted therapy can help people with a range of special needs, such as:
- Cerebral palsy
- Muscular dystrophy
- Down syndrome
- Spinal cord injury
- Multiple sclerosis
- Traumatic brain injuries
- Visual and auditory disabilities
- Emotional or behavioral difficulties
Riding a horse is also a great way for people with physical limitations who can’t participate in other recreational activities to get exercise and have fun.
Equine-assisted learning helps individuals build skills to achieve personal or professional goals through working with horses. An equine specialist develops a lesson plan based on the client’s needs and then guides the client through lessons in horse care and observations of the horse’s behavior. The point of this type of equine-assisted therapy is to form a link between human and horse behavior.
Specialized programs that incorporate elements of equine-assisted therapy and equine learning are used to help veterans, especially those struggling with PTSD, integrate back into civilian life. They also help with building communication skills, trust and emotional regulation. Equine learning’s therapeutic value can be applied to team-building activities or professional development in the workplace as well.
Benefits of Equine-Assisted Therapy
Equine therapy focuses on assisting those going through recovery for addiction, dealing with mental health problems or managing physical health issues in numerous ways. Some of these benefits include:
- Bringing a heightened awareness to patterns of dysfunctional behavior
- Defining what healthy relationships are and how to build trust with others
- Providing a metaphoric experience to build confidence and emotional growth
- Working through any psychological challenges that may have gone unnoticed, since horses can sense and respond to how you’re feeling
Caring for animals has also been proven to boost your mood by reducing stress. People who have pets tend to experience healthier cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and lower triglyceride levels. Riding a horse is also good exercise and can provide cardiovascular benefits and help build strength and endurance. This therapeutic approach also provides additional emotional benefits.
Sense of Trust
For individuals who have past experiences with abuse, trauma or abandonment that may have resulted in drug or alcohol addiction, forming a bond built on trust with a horse can help heal these wounds.
Feelings of Connection
Struggling with an addiction can leave individuals feeling isolated and alone, especially if they don’t have someone they feel they can talk to. While talk therapy can help with this, the unconditional acceptance that a horse provides can help you establish a strong connection with the animal. This can lead to forming more positive relationships with yourself and other people or animals.
Stronger Social Skills
By building a positive relationship with a horse, an individual may find their social skills improving. Grooming and caring for a horse pushes you to focus on something outside of your own struggles. Paying attention to others can lead to stronger relationships and better communication skills.
Equine Therapy at Ranch Creek Recovery
Equine-assisted therapy is part of the holistic approach to addiction recovery and mental health treatment offered at Ranch Creek Recovery. We use equine therapy or horse-assisted therapy (HAT) to improve the mood and overall well-being of our patients recovering from a substance use disorder. Equine-assisted growth isn’t just about working with horses. Our treatment sessions emphasize grooming, feeding and building a strong working relationship with the animal.
At the beginning of each session, an equestrian therapist will set a horse-related goal and explain the purpose of the exercise. These goals can include harnessing, cleaning hooves with a horseshoe pick, mucking a stall or leading a horse around its pen. Those who are inexperienced with horses receive guidance throughout the therapeutic process on how to successfully achieve the goal while forming a bond with their equine partner.
HAT is so much more than just cleaning and riding a horse. Each assigned task has a treatment goal in mind that helps individuals with emotional and spiritual healing. Equine-assisted therapy can also be paired with more traditional forms of treatment at our facility, including cognitive behavioral therapy, talk therapy and play therapy, to help overcome drug abuse or mental health struggles.
All equine therapy sessions are led by licensed mental health professionals, and our horses are trained by an equestrian. Clients also undergo an equine education course to learn basic riding, safety and communication skills.
Seek Help and Start Your Recovery Journey Today
Horses are nonjudgmental creatures that offer unconditional acceptance, no matter what addiction or mental health disorder you’re struggling with. Equine therapy can help you tune in to your emotions and discover patterns of destructive behavior so you can develop healthier coping skills to overcome substance abuse.
Contact us at Ranch Creek Recovery today by calling (877) 997-8931 and speaking with one of our licensed professionals. Learn more about our equine therapy program and other ways you can live a more fulfilling life.