Animals can be therapeutic. That’s why dogs can become service animals to those who suffer from anxiety, and that’s why we spend hours upon hours searching for online videos of adorable kittens when we’re feeling down. Since you’ve probably experienced the therapeutic benefits of animal contact at one point or another, it shouldn’t surprise you to hear that many therapists use animals in a formal treatment. One of the most well-known forms of animal-based therapy is equine therapy, and it seems to be growing in popularity lately.
You may have heard of equine therapy before. You may know it by its casual name (horse therapy) or its slightly more formal name (equine-assisted therapy, or EAT). You may have even seen it on The Real Housewives of New Jersey. But that alone will not paint the fullest picture of what equine therapy entails, how it works, and why you might want to consider trying it. Since we have recently begun to embrace the practice here at Amethyst Recovery, we would like to touch upon these issues in a bit more detail.
What Is Equine Therapy?
As the name suggests, equine therapy is the therapeutic practice of allowing patients to work with horses. This equestrian treatment, which can be practiced in a number of different ways, is dependent on the longstanding bond between humans and horses. So long has our species intermingled with horses, that a secret society known as the Society of the Horseman’s Word was founded in Scotland during the 1800s. According to myth, these legendary horse whisperers would use the phrase “both as one” to magically gain the respect of their animals. In truth, however, they were simply made up of generations of farmers who understood horse psychology.
The psychology of horses is a major factor in equestrian therapy. Horses evolved in the wild, and much of their behavior is derived from this fact. They are extremely sensitive to the vibes put off by other animals, including us. Their survival in the wild was dependent on their ability to recognize hostility, and they evolved to become highly sensitive creatures. As a result, they are able to pick up on hostile vibes from a wide array of negative emotions that we may not even realize we are putting off. Think of it as third-party biofeedback. You may recognize biofeedback as a tool used by those who wish to gain better control over the body and mind by learning how to recognize heart rate, muscle tension, and other indicators of physical and mental health. Many believe that horses recognize these indicators in humans, and that we can read our own vibes by seeing how horses react to us.
Equine therapy was first used as a formal practice by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) in 1969, and was aimed primarily at those with physical disabilities. It wasn’t long before the mental and emotional benefits of horse therapy were discovered, and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) began offering certification in equine-facilitated psychotherapy in 1999. Six years later, the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association (EFMHA) published national standards for mental health professionals wishing to utilize equine therapy in the treatment of their patients. While EAGALA still offers certifications, only two organizations offer nationally recognized standards for equine therapy in the treatment of physical and mental issues. These are NARHA and EFMHA, respectively.
As we said, there are a few different ways of using equine therapy in the treatment of patients. The earliest form of equine therapy is likely hippotherapy, which was developed formally in the 1960s but which has roots extending all the way back to ancient Greece. Hippotherapy is basically therapeutic horseback riding. The main difference is that true therapeutic horseback riding teaches the patient about proper riding techniques, whereas hippotherapy simply requires the rider to sit on the horse while the therapist controls the horse’s movements. The therapist then gains information on the patient by watching the patient’s responses to the horse’s movement, as well as the horse’s responses to the patient.
Since much of this therapeutic process revolves around monitoring the patient’s biofeedback and the horse’s responses to their emotional state, therapeutic horseback riding and hippotherapy are often grouped in a separate category from standard equine therapy. In fact, a lot of equine therapy does not require the patient to ride a horse at all. Instead, they may simply be asked to interact with the horse. Patients might be asked to brush a horse’s mane, get it to walk to a certain location, or clean its hooves. If the patient is calm and collected, these tasks will be relatively easy. If the patient is anxious, hostile, or experiencing any other strong negative emotion, then the horse may be quite resistant.
Equine therapy is usually accompanied by a more standard form of therapy. The reason that equine therapy is so beneficial to addicts and others in need of psychotherapy is that some patients may have an inclination toward denial. They might absolutely believe that everything is fine with their emotional state, even when it is not. When the horse picks up on this during therapy, the therapist gains a little more insight into the patient’s problem areas. Equine psychotherapy is not always a great substitute for more traditional forms of therapy, but it certainly doesn’t hurt the process.
Benefits of Equine Therapy
While equine therapy has been used to treat just about everything from various physical debilitations to autism, our main concern here is addiction. Fortunately, equine therapy has proven quite useful in this field as well. We’ve already talked about the reasons for this, and it’s comforting to know that experienced equestrian therapists are able to start reading their patients from the very moment the therapy begins. Gabrielle Gardner, a therapist for Shine For Life, says as much in her interview with The Guardian. “One of the reasons I think equine-assisted therapies work so well is that everyone has a reaction to horses; nobody is indifferent,” says Gardner. “People either love them or fear them, so that’s two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life’s issues revolve around. If you can work with an animal like this and overcome the fear, then it isn’t a bad starting point.”
Overcoming fear is certainly a major part of addiction treatment. Many of us abuse substances such as drugs and alcohol because we are afraid of various life circumstances. We fear that we are not good enough for our families, our jobs, or even life itself. Learning to approach a horse will not relieve us of these fears instantaneously, but it is certainly a stepping stone. We learn to approach this gigantic animal, a creature capable of knocking us into oblivion with a single kick. If we can do that, then a day without drugs or alcohol can’t possibly be that terrifying. It may not be that much of a true risk, since the horses used in equine therapy are generally trained not to kick. But if we were capable of analyzing our fears so rationally, then most of us would not be in recovery to begin with.
The ability to face our fears is only one of the things we may gain from equine therapy. There are many other benefits to this form of animal-assisted psychotherapy. Confidence is certainly at the top of most lists, but others include: trust, self-esteem, social skills, impulse control, boundaries, and spiritual connection.
Some of these may sound a bit strange to some. It may not be immediately clear why equine therapy helps us to learn the importance of boundaries, until we learn to treat the horse as an analog for human communications. If we disrespect the horse’s boundaries, the horse will respond negatively. People are the same way, although many of us were often surprised to find that people were not always approving of our behavior in active addiction. Disrespecting the boundaries of others can be bad for us as well, since we may become out of touch if we aren’t sure why we are doing it or why it has had so many consequences.
Self-efficacy is another major benefit of equine therapy. Again, some might not understand why this is. The simplest answer is that many forms of equine therapy teach us how to take care of the horse. Therapists may have their patients groom the animal, corral the horse from one location to another, or fit it with a saddle. Therapeutic horseback riding requires us to learn various riding techniques. We are not just learning an arbitrary skill, but how to take care of a living, breathing creature. And since we have no real emotional attachment to our therapeutic companion, it should be even easier to apply these lessons to those we care about. After all, if we feel this good about taking care of some stranger’s horse, we should feel even better about doing right by those we love. A writer for the comedy website Cracked once wrote about the importance of becoming the tap instead of the bucket. That is, becoming someone who can be relied upon rather than someone who always must rely upon others. This is what we gain from self-efficacy.
Because we experience so many emotions, and because horses react to them so strongly, there is really no shortage of benefits that we may experience through equine therapy. The main goal of equine therapy is for patients to learn more about themselves, and to work through some of their personal issues in the process. Some addicts and alcoholics with co-occurring disorders such as depression or anxiety will likely gain quite a bit from this form of therapy. One does not even have to like horses to gain something from it. We mentioned Real Housewives earlier, but we suggest you actually seek out that episode. The housewives and their husbands mock the process quite a bit, but almost every single one of them gains something from the experience when it is their turn to participate. Many consider reality stars to be among the shallowest people in the world. If equine therapy can work for them, it can absolutely work for you.
Equine Therapy at Amethyst
We’ve previously discussed the fact that we take our patients on therapeutic outings every weekend. These outings usually include activities such as sailing or deep sea fishing, but we try to vary the outings with relative frequency. Given the benefits of activities such as equine therapy and therapeutic horseback riding, it only makes sense that we would be sure to introduce our patients to some horses on at least one of these outings. In fact, we did this within the past week, and our patients absolutely loved it.
This is the type of variety we try to give our programs here at Amethyst Recovery. We understand that, while talking things out and learning more about addiction can be highly important, there are many people who need to change things up every once in a while. Therapeutic horseback riding enables our patients to discover themselves in a slightly more unique way. Furthermore, since this is not an isolated activity, our patients are able to deepen their friendships with the other patients on the outing. While they are learning more about themselves, they are also learning more about each other. For those who enter our sober living facilities upon graduating treatment, these friendships will prove quite useful.
As we stated above, our last equestrian outing proved to be a smash hit with the patients involved. They all greatly enjoyed the experience, and learned quite a bit about themselves in the process. We managed to snap a couple of pictures while we were out, and we would now like to leave you with a few of them. Our hope is that these pictures will showcase the fact that addiction treatment does not have to be full of nothing but tears and negative emotion. Our goal is to lead happy and fulfilling lives in sobriety. Here at Amethyst Recovery, we like patients to start experiencing that happiness and fulfillment while they are still in treatment. Equine therapy is just one more way of giving them that gift.