Equine Therapy for Addiction Treatment
Animals have an extraordinary ability to connect with humans. They can offer emotional support, build our confidence and harness our social skills.
Companionship with domesticated animals has been recognised to enhance quality of life and healing from serious illnesses and conditions.
So, it’s no wonder animals have been introduced into therapeutic settings to help clients overcome emotional challenges.
In his paper, The People Whisperers, Bill Benda wrote “throughout our history, horses have consciously chosen to befriend us humans who are less powerful, less sensitive, less intuitive, and less in touch with the energy and spirit of the natural world than they.
The fact is we have not domesticated the horse as we have the dog, because they do not love and accept us unconditionally but meet us on a more even and equal ground.
A dog will follow its master no matter the journey or the treatment, but the horse will not put up with just any behaviour a human chooses to express.”
By introducing horses into psychotherapy, Equine-Assisted Therapy has expanded the capabilities of treating both mental health conditions and physical disabilities as well as enhanced the pathway to freedom from addiction.
Where Did Equine Therapy Begin?
Equine Therapy is not a recent invention. Historically, the practice of riding horses for medicinal purposes can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greeks.
Around 600BC people understood the therapeutic value of riding horses and acknowledged that horse riding was not just a mode of transport but could be utilised to alleviate pain, increase wellbeing, improve posture and enhance their quality of life. This is known as Hippotherapy.
Jump forward and in 1875, French physician Cassaign began studies determining the usefulness of the practice past the physical benefits.
Cassaign concluded that Equine-Assisted treatment was also beneficial in treating neurological disorders, as the animal provided a psychological shift in perspectives.
England recognised these benefits and offered Equine Therapies to wounded soldiers during World War 1 as a form of rehabilitation.
Hippotherapy was later introduced to treat the outbreak of Polio in Scandinavia around 1946.
The medical benefits of riding horses proved to increase balance, stability and relaxation for the afflicted individuals and demonstrated increased development in muscle tone, coordination, well-being and confidence.
Danish woman Lis Hartel who was a victim of poliomyelitis used riding therapy to improve her strength and muscle coordination. She brought attention to the benefits of Equine Therapies for disabled people when she won the silver medal for Dressage at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games.
Despite needing assistance mounting and dismounting her horse, once she began riding it was evident the effects the horse had on her disability. This inspiring experience was pivotal in revealing the life-changing power of the horse.
She was a pioneer of the practice and an outspoken champion of its benefits. The sixties offered an array of treatments and experiments into these benefits and the organisation Riding for Disabled Association (RDA)was founded with huge support from the British Royal Family.
Equine Therapy also became noticed in Canada and the United States when the Community Association of Riding of the Disabled (CARD) formed and now holds the oldest centre focusing on disabilities.
Today, disabled riders from all walks of life participate in national and international competitions with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA).
They provide safety guidelines and training, certify instructors and accredit Equine-Assisted Therapy centres.
From thousands of years of riding and case studies, to organisations and accreditations the treatment has evolved. Previously hailed as “American Garbage”, Equine-Assisted Therapy is now widely recognised across many major countries.
Other forms of therapy involving the assistance of horses are Equine Facilitated Mental Health practices and Equine Experiential Learning.
Doctors, psychiatrists, speech therapists, occupational and physical therapists across the board now refer patients to Equine-Assisted Therapy centres regularly.
So, what is Equine-Assisted Therapy?
Although Hippotherapy involves riding the gallant animal, Equine-Assisted Therapy is a ground-based treatment where participants are given the responsibility to care for and nurture the horse.
Each participant will assist in feeding, grooming and taking care of the horse as well as interacting with them socially. Through building a strong bond with the animal, participants can regain confidence in social ability and responsibility.
This is why the holistic treatment is an understated solution for those on the path to recovery from Addiction.
Equine Therapy sessions often happen in small groups, including a therapist and horse handler. The majority of the session is spent nurturing the horse, grooming them, petting, feeding and connecting with them.
The equine therapists can set tasks for each participant dependant on their areas of weakness and work through solving problems together.
There is also time for discussion with the therapist where participants can talk through their experience and how they are coping with recovery.
Oftentimes participants describe Equine-Assisted Therapy as calming, and they feel it helps build various skills and more specifically teamwork.
Recent studies show that participants who get involved with Equine-Assisted Therapy have significantly lower stress hormones, can become more independent, feel self-supported and have a better ability to live in the present, with less resentment and guilt for the past.
Some of the key components to a pathway of recovery.
This therapy is not just a one-stop for anxiety or stress but more a change in perspective and a release from the triggers that come from addiction.
How Does the Behaviour of Horses Enhance the Journey?
People struggling with addiction can oftentimes feel judgement from many aspects of their life, whether that be from family, colleagues, friends or other social situations.
However, horses have a totally unbiased opinion of the participant and make no judgement on their past or future. Horses can only react to the participants behaviour and emotions at the time of their interaction and have no bias or judgements over their past mistakes or physical appearance.
They do not care about the person you were or have become but more so the way you treat them, this is the only way they can build a trusting relationship.
It is this trusting relationship that those suffering from addiction may feel hard to create and hold onto and the horse can rebuild this confidence to remind the participant that this relationship is possible once more.
Past participants have described this as crucial to the therapy and it helped to increase their self-confidence and self-esteem. This feeling of trust can also open up a stronger relationship with the working therapist.
A participant may feel a better understanding the relationship and break down the barriers they may be holding up when speaking to a human therapist.
As horses are a herd animal, they are innately sensitive and hyper vigilant which makes them keen observers. This means their feedback to the participant is given sooner and more consistently compared to working with a human therapist alone.
They have an innate tendency to mirror human behaviours, from physical movements to emotions and this heightens the participants awareness of their own actions and reactions, making them become self-aware of their behaviours.
When horses mirror the feelings and emotions of those around them, this allows participants to “feel felt” in a way that cannot be replicated by human therapists.
This feedback can then be translated by the working specialists and analysed by the group.
If a person is feeling blocked by the traditional talk therapy session, this feedback can help bridge the gaps and give them a more comfortable and safer environment in which they feel they can open up in.
Repairing past relationships is a critical step in the journey to recovery.
Working with the horses alongside a therapist can build trust and provide the participant with guidelines to develop other trusting relationships in the future as well as repair those that may have been affected by their addiction.
It can also make the participant feel more aware of how they interact with other living creatures; the way they speak to people, the way they react to emotions and how they regulate anger and frustration.
This realisation can provide the confidence and courage to repair past relationships and move on past their addiction.
To learn more about Equity Therapy, be sure to check out the website run by the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Equine Activities. To learn about the practical aspects of equine therapy in addiction and alcohol rehab treatment, another website we would highly recommend is Rehab Recovery.
Is Equine-Assisted Therapy Right for You?
If you have found yourself in a position of weakness and are seeking rehabilitation but realise talking therapies are not for you, there are alternative options for treating addiction.
Equine Therapy could be for you if you are not ready for one-to-one sessions with a therapist and also if you feel better suited to joint discussion.
Oftentimes hearing other people’s experience of addiction can be comforting and a catalyst for change as you are working with a group who understand your pains and weaknesses.
Meeting the handler and therapist in an open area, aside from a meeting room can also make the experience more comfortable.
Some people can become overwhelmed by only meeting with the therapist and that they feel judged or misunderstood.
Being in this group with other addiction sufferers can release this feeling and afford an open environment to experience change together. The whole group is on the same journey as yourself.