Rehab 4 Addiction

Equine therapy allows individuals with substance use disorders (SUDs) to overcome their addictions by looking after horses.

Studies have shown that looking after an animal can help to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. It can also combat feelings of loneliness and depression. [1]

Although any animal can be used for therapy, horses have proven to be very successful in helping people to overcome mental health and addiction problems.

In equine therapy, you feed, groom and look after a horse for a number of weeks, alongside a trained equine therapist. A typical equine therapy session involves caring for the horse, and discussing your feelings with the therapist.

Though relatively new, this form of therapy has shown promise in treating SUDs. It is an exciting new therapy which may appeal to those who have had limited success with more traditional therapies, as well as those who want to try an alternative therapy in conjunction with a talking therapy.

What is equine therapy?

Equine therapy is a holistic form of therapy which treats the body as well as the mind. It aims to calm anxieties and foster a greater sense of self-worth through the practical task of looking after a horse.

Horses are very intelligent animals. You will need to build a relationship with the horse, based on trust and affection.

This relationship is the key to equine therapy. Individuals with addiction problems often put pressure on their relationships through their substance use. By forming a strong relationship with an animal, those in equine therapy can begin to rebuild their self-confidence through developing a sense of responsibility.

What happens during an equine therapy session?

Equine therapy sessions normally happen in small groups, including individuals in therapy, a therapist, and a horse handler.

The bulk of the session is spent caring for the horse, through grooming, petting, feeding and so on. There will also be time for discussion with the therapist, in which those in therapy can talk about how they are coping with recovery.

Many people who have experienced equine therapy say that it is very calming, and that it helped them to develop various skills, including teamwork. Equine therapists often set tasks for their patients, which include working together to solve problems.

Some lessons from equine therapy

  • Coping with strong emotions. People with SUDs often struggle to cope with strong emotions. They may become overwhelmed easily, or react in a self-destructive fashion by using substances. One of the best ways to overcome strong emotions is to do something active, which forces your brain to switch off. Equine therapy allows people to do just that. When you are in the presence of a horse, they pick up your signals very astutely. If you are angry and negative, the horse will be skittish and hard to calm. If, however, you are relaxed and at ease, they will be much tamer and friendlier. Getting in tune with a horse can help individuals with SUDs to learn how to control their emotions
  • Dealing with fear and anxiety. Horses are big, strong animals. For some individuals in recovery, the thought of approaching a horse can be a scary one. Individuals may be concerned that the horse will kick or bite them; on a deeper level, they may also be scared that the horse won’t like them. Overcoming these fears is a key part of equine therapy. In order to recover from substance use disorders, individuals must learn to deal with anxiety. Equine therapy provides a great setting in which to master one’s fears
  • Building trust. Issues with forming relationships and establishing trust are very common among people with SUDs. This is due to a number of factors, including high rates of childhood abuse and trauma. [2] Horses, though strong, are very gentle animals. Many people who go through equine therapy find the experience of forming a bond of trust with a horse to be incredibly powerful. Equine therapy can help people who have become completely shut off to learn how to reach out again

What skills can equine therapy teach?

Equine therapy teaches several useful skills. Not only do these skills help people to recover from SUDs; they also equip them for life after rehab treatment.

Building a relationship with a horse teaches skills such as opening up, building trust and being reliable. These are all key skills when it comes to forming relationships with other people.

Managing a horse takes flexibility and patience. Horses change mood from one day to the next, and you will need to use emotional receptivity to keep track of these changes in disposition.

When it comes to interacting with the horse, non-verbal communication is a key skill which you will need. Patients in equine therapy learn how to be open and calm in their body language.

The hands-on approach required for equine therapy helps free up the mind to think about other things. You may find that you are better able to observe your thought processes during equine therapy, using mindfulness techniques. This can help you to learn more about yourself, your way of thinking, and how these factors contribute to your substance use.

What are the advantages of equine therapy?

One of the main benefits of equine therapy is that it can help people open up. Individuals in addiction treatment sometimes struggle to put their experiences into words. Many will have gone through trauma and mental health issues. [3] Being around a horse helps people to connect with another creature without any of the complications of human relationships.

Equine therapy is also very calming. The simple physical activities involved with looking after a horse, such as grooming, can take your mind off other worries.

Equine therapy can also be used to treat people with co-occurring mental health disorders, because of the transferable nature of the skills it teaches. People with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems report many of the same experiences after going through equine therapy, such as feeling calmer, growing in confidence, and becoming more trusting.

What is the evidence for equine therapy?

As equine therapy is a relatively young branch of therapy, there is not as much evidence to support it as with more established forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, family therapy and motivational interviewing.

One study, conducted by Klontz et al. in 2007, found that participants reported feeling less distressed and more independent after going through equine therapy. However, the sample size was relatively small (only 31 participants) so it is difficult to draw concrete conclusions from this. Other studies have returned mixed results.

Does this mean you should avoid equine therapy? No. With alternative therapies such as this, especially ones that are relatively new, it is common for there to be a lack of scientific evidence. In a few years’ time we may see more evidence published on the topic.

That being said, equine therapy may work best in conjunction with a more established therapy such as CBT. CBT has been extensively studied and shows overwhelmingly positive results for treating both addiction and mental disorders. [4]

It is also important to consider having some one-to-one therapy for addiction, and equine therapy often happens in groups.

Final thoughts

Equine therapy shows a lot of promise as a holistic, alternative form of therapy. It should work well for those who like animals, as well as those who have had limited success with other forms of therapy and those who want to try something a little bit different.

If done well, equine therapy has the potential to offer a range of skills, including increased confidence, relief from negative thoughts, and finding out more about yourself.

References

[1] Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘About Pets and People’, https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/health-benefits/index.html

[2] ‘Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population’, Lamya Khoury et al. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3051362/

[3] Common Comorbidities with Substance Use Disorders Research Report Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/part-1-connection-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illness

[4] Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Substance Use Disorders, R. Kathryn McHugh et al,
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2897895/