Equine-assisted therapy, once used mainly for physical therapy and injury rehabilitation, has branched off. It’s now used to treat a range of psychological and behavioral disorders, including addiction. Horses make singularly effective therapy animals because their very presence tends to elicit a strong emotional reaction — most people either fear horses or adore them.
Horses have distinct personalities and, as herd animals, are remarkably sensitive to the emotional states of the humans with which they interact. Through equine-assisted therapy, a therapist can quickly gain unique insights into a recovering addict’s emotional life. The recovering addict, in turn, can overcome emotional blockages and develop valuable interpersonal skills.
Horses as Therapy Animals
Dogs, rabbits and many other domestic animals are used in animal-assisted therapeutic interventions, but horses are considered particularly effective as therapy animals, in part because of their size. While it might be easy enough to forget an interaction with a human counselor or a smaller therapy animal, like a dog, a horse’s sheer mass makes therapy with these animals memorable.
Studies show that spending time with horseschanges your brain waves, making you feel more centered and calmer. Additional physiological benefits of interacting with horses include lowered blood pressure and heart rate, reduced stress and increased production of endorphins. When you interact with a horse in a therapeutic setting, feelings of anger, anxiety, hostility and tension give way to feelings of patience, self-esteem, empowerment and trust.
As therapy animals, horses are especially beneficial for people who strugglewith traditional talk-based therapies. As herd animals, horses are naturally empathetic; they pick up on and, according to equine therapists, mirror the emotional states of the humans they interact with.
Horse therapy allows addiction treatment specialists to gain a clearer picture of the emotions of recovering addicts. Interacting with a horse offers insights into a recovering addict’s emotional struggles, character and inner truths that can prove invaluable when re-integrated into his or her treatment plan.
Equine-assisted therapy takes recovering addicts out of their heads and into their bodies. It stops intellectualization, the process by which many recovering addicts, especially those who are high-functioning and intelligent, attempt to outthink addiction. Only by facing, working through and learning to cope with one’s emotions can a substance abuse disorder truly be overcome.
The Horse-Human Bond
Many addiction treatment facilities, like the Wellness Resource Center drug rehab in Florida, make equine-assisted therapy facilities available to residents. Horse therapy can take place in a barn, corral or meadow where horses are kept.
Most people have a strong emotional reaction when they first encounter a horse; for recovering addicts, who lack self-esteem and have limited communication and interpersonal skills, this reaction is often fearful. The therapeutic process involves slowly establishing a relationship with the horse and nurturing the bond between horse and human.
Equine-assisted therapy often doesn’t involve actually riding the horse, at least at first. Instead, recovering addicts and their counselors spend time interacting with the horse — petting, grooming, feeding and talking to the horse — in a one-on-one or group setting. Afterward, the therapist may set aside time to help the recovering addict process his or her feelings about the experience.
Horses require significant care; they can’t clean, feed or groom themselves. Learning to care for a horse helps recovering addicts recover feelings of competency and learn responsibility.
Taking responsibility for something outside themselves shines a ray of hope into the lives of many recovering addicts, who are going through what may be one of the darkest times of their lives. Recovering addicts must learn to overcome their fear of horses, if they have any, and develop patience, understanding and consistency in order to communicate with the horse.
Developing a relationship with a horse helps recovering addicts open up emotionally, even when they are resistant to letting other humans in. It also helps strengthen their non-verbal communication skills.
As the recovering addict learns to respond to the horse with care and affection, the horse responds in kind; the recovering addict benefits from the sense of unconditional acceptance he or she feels from a new equine friend.
Horses make excellent therapy animals for people recovering from addiction. With their empathetic nature and imposing presence, horses help recovering addicts and their therapists achieve breakthroughs that might not be possible through traditional talk therapies. For recovering addicts and others who have benefited from equine-assisted therapy, it’s no surprise that horses and humans have enjoyed such a close relationship throughout history.
Photo Credit By: herdbyahorse.com