Equine-assisted addiction treatment, or equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), is a type of holistic treatment used to help people work through any mental health problems they may be struggling with as a result of their addiction or a co-occurring disorder. At Ranch Creek Recovery, we leverage equine therapy or horse-assisted therapy (HAT) to supplement traditional therapy for substance abuse recovery, which can improve mood and overall well-being.
Why Equine-Assisted Therapy for Drug Addiction?
Equine therapy is part of animal-assisted therapy, where animals like dogs and cats are used to help comfort people and give them a safe environment to cope with trauma. This can be especially helpful for people with anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as those struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Horses are used for these types of treatment programs because they’re natural pack animals that pick up on the feelings and moods of other creatures around them. When interacting with a horse, it has the ability to sense how you’re feeling and respond appropriately, letting you connect on a level you might not be able to in individual or group therapy. This also provides a mirror for your own negative emotions that you might have a difficult time noticing.
Working with horses is a two-way street exercise in trust. Horses can be easily abused by humans, as they tend to rely on people for their basic care needs such as shelter, food and grooming. Conversely, people look to horses for recreation, relaxation and utility, as well as emotional support. Trust is required on both sides, as horses can easily seriously hurt a human through negligence or malice, depending on their mood and general temper. If their boundaries are crossed, they’ll provide immediate feedback that can be extremely helpful to the client’s experience.
As a result of this type of relationship between man and beast, successfully working with such a majestic (albeit dangerous) animal can be extremely psychologically rewarding. For someone who struggles with internalized shame, self-doubt and despair in the face of it all, forming a trusting bond with a horse can reverse years of negative self-talk and experiences. This can be extremely helpful if you’re battling mental health issues like depression.
Additionally, the cognitive challenge of finding a way to communicate with your equine assistant and going over exercises with your therapist improves mental health and cognitive flexibility by helping you learn healthy communication methods.
Other ways this form of addiction treatment proves excellent for stopping substance misuse, as well as mental health disorders like depression, include:
- An improved self-concept as a result of success in challenging endeavors
- Learning comprehensive social skills
- Impulse control can benefit from exercises that require a high level of concentration and patience to succeed
- Help to overcome addiction to alcohol or drugs
With more time spent training with your equine counselor, you can see a wealth of beneficial side effects that improve your overall well-being and self-worth.
History of Equine Therapy
Therapeutic riding has been around for centuries. Ancient Greek literature describes the use of horseback riding as a treatment practice. Therapeutic horse riding was initiated in North America in 1969 by Community Association for Riding Disabilities (CARD). The sport was an enjoyable activity for stressed people and was a motivational tool in the workplace. Various animals are often used for therapy, such as cats and dogs, but horses are now popular because they offer unique benefits.
What Does Equine Therapy for Addiction Consist Of?
You may assume equine therapy is only riding horses, but that’s just part of the picture. This type of work involves feeding, grooming and building a working relationship. Many equine treatment sessions don’t include direct contact with the horse. Instead, the equestrian therapist will lead the team or individual exercises around it.
At the beginning of a session, they’ll set a goal and go over the purpose of the exercise. Goals can include harnessing, mucking a stall, leading a horse around a pen or cleaning a hoof with a horseshoe pick. Those who aren’t familiar with horses are guided by the animal’s handler, who may facilitate three-way interactions involving the horse, the handler and the client until the client and their equine therapy partner form enough of a bond to interact independently of the therapist.
HAT is much more complex than just riding and cleaning. The therapist who runs the session sets a specific goal for the trip with clear treatment goals in mind, designed to facilitate emotional and spiritual healing for the participants. One participant may be called out to complete a task, like leading a horse to a destination, while the rest of the patients observe and take notes.
Equine-assisted therapy can easily be adapted to include techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), play therapy or talk therapy with storytelling and other methods to help battle drug abuse and related behavioral problems. People with anxiety, for example, can benefit from mindfulness training using the horse as a cue to discuss what anxious signals the horse displays, as horses are naturally very anxious around new people.
Benefits of EAP Therapy for Addiction
Equine therapy offers many benefits to those going through addiction recovery, including:
- Identifying and working through feelings they may not have even realized they had, since horses can sense how you’re feeling and respond similarly
- Providing metaphoric experiences to stimulate emotional growth and build confidence
- Teaching you more about yourself and allowing you to recognize dysfunctional patterns of behavior
- Helping define what healthy relationships should look like and how to build trust with others
Many people in lifelong recovery from addiction cite spirituality as a highly motivating contributor to their relapse prevention success so far. Some people refer to a higher power, while others adopt a holistic style, finding solace in the joy of nature and its miracles. Working with horses is one way to discover this feeling.
Who Performs the Therapy?
Equine therapy is facilitated by licensed mental health professionals and counselors with help from certified equestrians. Horses used in equine therapy must also be specially trained by an equestrian, able to maintain their composure on hikes and when working with a group of unfamiliar people.
The animals meet several other criteria for temperament with intensive obedience training. This helps ensure the effective and safe treatment of the animal and client, as they need to be able to work together safely to facilitate healing. Clients undergoing equine-assisted treatment also complete an equine education course, to make sure they know riding basics, safety skills, boundaries and how to communicate.
Equine Therapy at Ranch Creek Recovery Treatment Centers
When you come to Ranch Creek Recovery, equine therapy will be worked into your comprehensive treatment plan to beat addiction. You’ll experience equine-assisted treatment sessions at our recovery centers, where you’ll be able to interact with horses in a safe, relaxing environment for set periods of time.
The insights gained from equine therapy work will then be points of discussion during your individual and group treatment sessions, using examples of your interactions and observations of the horse’s behavior to help you reflect and analyze your own human reactions. In this way, you can continue to work through the emotional and psychological issues felt before and during your addiction, solidifying your therapeutic process.
Get on the Path to Healing Today at Ranch Creek Recovery
Horses are beautiful, nonjudgmental creatures with no expectations or motives. We find equine therapy effective in helping you become more aware of your emotional state and gain deeper insight into your behaviors, patterns, congruency, boundaries and stumbling blocks to recovery.
Learn more about Ranch Creek Recovery equine therapy program to help you overcome addiction by calling our admissions team for a free confidential assessment at 877-293-8607.