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“A horse is the projection of peoples’ dreams about themselves – strong, powerful, beautiful – and it has the capability of giving us escape from our mundane existence.” This quote is attributed to Pam Brown, and it likely has special resonance for people who love horses. It might also appeal to people who provide equine-assisted therapy. These therapists believe that horses can provide people in recovery from addictions, mental illnesses or both with the help they’ll need to overcome the challenges they face.

Equine-assisted therapy, or EAT, is provided in treatment facilities both in the United States and elsewhere across the world. While the definitive research on the effectiveness of this therapy has yet to be performed, those who have undergone the therapy often claim it’s the best thing that has happened to them in recovery. You might have the same experience in your own addiction program.

*Why Work With Horses?

Animal-assisted therapists can use all sorts of creatures in their work, including dogs, cats and birds. But people who provide EAT claim that horses can provide benefits that no other animal can provide. For example, according to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, horses have distinct personalities, and approaches that work with one horse won’t always work with another. Horses can also be stubborn, refusing to change unless the person changes. For those who are accustomed to easy answers and quick fixes, working with horses can provide valuable lessons in patience and flexibility.

Understanding Therapy

When you participate in an equine-assisted therapy session, it’s likely that you’ll keep your feet on the ground at all times. While riding the horse might be fun, and some might even find it beneficial, time spent riding a horse will teach you entirely different lessons involving balance and coordination. These are not the goals of an EAT lesson. Instead, you’ll be focused on learning interpersonal skills, and the horse will be your guide.

In a typical EAT session, the therapist will ask you to perform some task with the horse. You might be asked to guide the horse from one end of the corral to another, using only the sound of your voice, for example. In a lesson like this, you might discover that the impatience you feel is transmitted through your voice, and as a result, the horse is resistant to move, no matter what you might say. This might cause you to think about other times in which what you have said and what you were feeling were contradictory, and how those hidden thoughts might be apparent to those around you.

Some therapists use horses to teach their clients about the nature of addiction. The therapist might put down a bucket of yummy carrots, and then ask you to distract the horse from the carrots. As you watch the horse look longingly at the carrots, unable to concentrate on the commands you’re giving, you might understand just a bit more about how addiction impacts your actions.

Horses might be able to teach valuable lessons about being an individual in a group of like-minded peers. Horses are pack animals, and they often like to spend time together. But, horses that act out or become aggressive are often avoided by the other horses and they’re excluded from the group. Their partners might slowly shy away from them in an episode. Just watching this interaction, with a therapist explaining what the horse body language means, could be incredibly instructive.

Some therapists also ask their patients to just pet and groom the horses. According to an article published in Psychiatry Online, this approach has been used with people who have violent tendencies, and the results were remarkable. For example, one patient, who had been considered extremely violent, was “moved to tears” by the horses and truly enjoyed his sessions. Interestingly, a second study group worked exclusively with dogs in their sessions, and those who worked with horses experienced an effect that was two to three times as great as the effect felt by those who worked with dogs. The horses seemed to provide a superior benefit. These very violent patients had an increased sense of peace, and as a result, they were less likely to act out both inside and outside of their therapy sessions.

*Hippotherapy: A Different Form of Treatment

Hippotherapy, in which a person is asked to ride a horse, is a useful treatment for those who struggle with:

  • Cerebral palsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Stroke

Riding a horse takes a significant amount of balance, and the rider must be able to detect and react to tiny shifts of movement and other cues from the horse. Just riding the horse can retrain the brain to pick up those cues. This isn’t a form of therapy provided in many addiction treatment programs, but it is sometimes provided in physical therapy programs or physical rehabilitation programs.

Goals of Equine-Assisted Therapy

All of the time you spend with the horse will be monitored by a licensed therapist. This professional has training in managing horses, and can step in if the horse becomes overtly upset or angry. But this professional also has training in working with people, and the therapist likely has specific goals in mind for you as you work with the horse. Common goals of EAT include:

  • Increasing assertiveness
  • Honing problem-solving skills
  • Utilizing teamwork skills
  • Building confidence
  • Improving leadership skills

The therapist that runs your EAT sessions might not be the therapist who runs your one-on-one addiction therapy sessions. If it’s not the same therapist, the two therapists will meet frequently to discuss your progress and brainstorm about how the horse might be used more effectively in your treatment program. In addition, you might be encouraged to talk about your EAT sessions in your one-on-one sessions and build upon that work as needed.

It’s important to note that EAT isn’t a feel-good therapy provided to make you happy or encourage you to stay in therapy. While working with horses may have those benefits, of course, the true purpose of providing EAT is to help you overcome your addictions, and your therapist will have measurable goals you’ll need to meet. These are the same measures researchers use when they’re studying EAT and trying to determine if it works for their clients. For example, in a study published in the journal Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, researchers measured the success of EAT by providing the participants with tests of self-image, self-control, trust and life satisfaction. The tests were given before the therapy began, and when it ended. You might be provided with similar tests as your EAT program progresses, so your therapists can make sure the therapy is working for you.

*Is It Right for Me?

People who benefit from equine-assisted therapy tend to agree with the following types of statements:

  • I enjoy working with animals.
  • I find talking to animals easier than talking to humans.
  • I’m not allergic to horses or afraid of them.
  • I feel like people don’t understand me, and I’m not sure why.
  • I don’t enjoy talking in therapy about my problems. I’d rather do something with my hands.

Training the Horses

While it’s true that horses can be stubborn, and horses are large creatures that can do a significant amount of damage if they’re ill or in pain, horses are temperament tested before they’re allowed to participate in treatment programs. Those that bite, stomp or rear up might not be allowed in treatment programs because they’re too risky to work with. Similarly, horses that are too docile are also not included in treatment programs, as they may not provide the sort of feedback the therapist is looking for. The goal is to use horses that are reactive and able to give honest and useful feedback, but to avoid horses that might use physical pain or intimidation to get their messages across.

Before therapy sessions begin, horses are typically allowed to run freely and eat a good meal. They shouldn’t be full of nervous energy or hungry, as this might make them more reactive. When they’ve had a chance to exercise and eat, they might be more ready to work. Horse trainers typically handle these details.

As your therapy progresses, and you learn more about interpreting horse behavior, you might be allowed to help care for the animals. You might be asked to clean stalls or provide food, for example. While it might sound unpleasant to handle these sorts of farmhand tasks, it could end up being a beneficial part of your addiction recovery program. Addictions can make it difficult for you to hold down a job and make a meaningful contribution in the life of another living being. By providing a horse with a clean stall and healthy food, you might feel a sense of accomplishment that’s been missing in your life for quite some time.

There’s a long tradition of using this sort of farm work to help reach people in recovery from addictions and mental illnesses, and studies suggest that it’s a helpful program to participate in. For example, according to a study published in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, people with schizophrenia who spent time feeding, cleaning and milking cows felt an increased sensation of self-efficacy and a reduced feeling of anxiety. The hard work made them feel more capable. Working with horses in this manner might provide you with the same sort of benefit.

*Sharing Stories

“I worked with a horse in my addiction program, and it might sound weird, but the horse taught me more about talking to people than my human therapist ever could. Before I went to therapy, I was really sarcastic. It was my defense mechanism, and half the time, I didn’t even know how I sounded to other people. To me, it was just normal. Horses hate sarcasm, I can tell you that. Whenever it slipped into my voice, the horses just ran off. Through working with horses, I finally figured out how to hear my own sarcasm, and I stopped using it all of the time,” says Molly, age 19.

If you’re interested in learning more about equine-assisted therapy, contact us today. We are here 24 hours a day to answer any questions you have.

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