Finding a method that would motivate adults to stay in substance abuse treatment programs long enough is a problem solved by Equine Therapy (also known as Horse-Assisted Therapy, or HAT). In Equine Therapy, horses represent metaphorical experiences to stimulate emotional growth, which is vital in recovery from drug addiction. It has been proven to assist clients in developing the following skills: confidence, self-efficacy, self-concept, communication, trust, perspective, decreased isolation, self-acceptance, impulse control, social skills, boundaries, spiritual connection, and more. Each client’s interaction with the horse allows a trained therapist to observe their behavior, emotional reaction and thought patterns in order to establish healthy relationships with themselves, friends, and family.
Horses play an important role in addiction treatment due to their keen sensitivity to changes in a person’s emotional and mental state. The therapist studies a horse’s behavioral reactions to the client’s moods and gleans information from the human-horse interactions. Comparable to a mirror, a horse’s reaction reflects a person’s depressed or calm state of being, exposing emotions that the person may or may not intentionally show. A horse’s behavior thus helps the client gain self-awareness and establishes trust, because most patients perceive horses as non-judgmental and inviting. During these interactions, the client’s guards are down, allowing for transparency which helps the therapist gain insight into the individual’s state of being. The positive therapeutic alliance between the horse and the human being improves the outcome of treatment goals. Equine-assisted activities address the following:
According to a study published in The Practitioner Scholar: Journal of Counseling and Professional Psychology, women who received equine-assisted therapy reported great boosts of self-esteem and self-realization, which enabled them to terminate toxic relationships. Growing research has been published in the Psychiatric Times and Journal of American Medical Association about the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy, which has been used to treat patients with depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder (ADD), dissociative disorders, substance abuse disorders and other chronic illnesses.
Therapeutic riding or therapy involving horses dates back to ancient times. Greek literature from as far back as 600 B.C. discusses using horseback riding as a therapy. Fast-forward to 1946, and the therapy was introduced in Scandinavia to help people recover from poliomyelitis. In 1960, therapeutic horseback riding was introduced in North America through the formation of CARD (Community Association of Riding of the Disabled). It became an encouraging form of recreation and motivation for those dealing with disabilities.
Other animals are often used in therapy as well, but horses have become the most popular due to the immediate feedback they provide. They are also large and intimidating, which forces the person to both gain trust from the horse and also trust the animal not to hurt them.
Equine therapy is a type of mental health treatment involving a horse or horses. It is sometimes called equine-assisted therapy or EAT. This might seem like a strange way to treat mental health conditions like addiction, depression or anxiety, but it’s actually a very popular and common form of treatment. Many people in treatment for mental health conditions take part in equine therapy to find relief and empower themselves.
You might think that equine therapy is just riding horses, but it’s much more than that. Working with horses includes feeding and grooming as well as building a relationship. Horses are intelligent and sensitive animals. You can’t expect to work with them without gaining their trust first. In other words, a horse has expectations from a person working with it. This creates a responsibility for the person in addiction and mental health programs. Often, this type of responsibility is something they haven’t had.
The main benefit of working with horses is relationship-building skills. A horse is very sensitive to the person working with them, which means that interacting with them is similar to interacting with a person. Building trust with a horse takes some work. Equine therapy teaches the following skills:
A key element to addiction recovery and mental treatment is building relationships and avoiding isolation. Isolation and the lack of healthy relationships is a good way to sink back into bad habits and relapse. Equine therapy helps both those in addiction and mental health treatment learn how to build better relationships and understand responsibility.
Nearly everyone can benefit in some way from working with a horse. However, equine therapy is especially beneficial for those in addiction recovery. It can also help those struggling with depression or anxiety. In all three cases, people tend to lose confidence and retreat to isolation. Therapy with horses can help these people become more open and work on controlling their impulses. A horse is almost like a living mirror as they give immediate feedback in interactions. Other conditions that can be helped with equine therapy include the following:
Working with horses can involve a lot more than just riding, cleaning and grooming. The therapist in charge of the session will typically set goals for each outing. For example, one session might involve the patient successfully leading the horse from one spot to another, or putting a halter on the horse. They will then discuss with the therapist what ideas and thoughts they used to complete the task.
This type of application helps people with anxiety as it encourages being focused and present instead of worrying about the past or future. They must communicate with the handler, the therapist and the animal. This type of living in the moment activity also helps those with depression and other mental health conditions. Other techniques used during equine-assisted therapy sessions include the following:
Cognitive therapy helps patients focus on the animal they’re working with. Equines sense danger and may respond with a hyper-awareness to things around them. Patients can likely see and feel these changes as they observe the animal. The patient would need to remain calm and take responsibility for removing the feeling of fear from the animal.
Scheduling is common during this type of therapy as people with certain disorders will start avoiding their personal responsibilities. Scheduling activities to work with and care for an animal helps these people regain a sense of structure and responsibility.
Why are equines so perfectly suited for this type of therapy? As previously mentioned, equines are sensitive and intelligent. They are also unbiased and non-judgemental. They only react to how the person behaves and emotes around them. They don’t care about appearances or past mistakes. Patients often describe this as a relief during therapy and that it helps their confidence and self-esteem.
Equines are herd animals, which also makes them prey animals. That means they’re keenly observant and vigilant for threats. At the same time, they have an innate ability to take on the behavior of human interaction. This gives patients the unique opportunity to feel felt by another being.
If you suffer from depression, anxiety or another mental health condition, then you might consider the benefits of equine-assisted therapy. New Method Wellness offers this type of therapy for both addiction treatment and mental health treatment. We are a dual diagnosis treatment center, which means we treat the co-occurring disorders of addiction and another mental health condition.
Equine therapy for addiction treatment can be very effective for those seeking to find meaning in recovery or explore new hobbies. It can also have profound effects on behavior and thought patterns for many people.
To find out more about our programs, including equine-assisted therapy, contact New Method Wellness today.