Equine Assisted Therapy

Equine therapy – also known as equine-facilitated learning – is a form of animal therapy where a horse is used as a tool for understanding and growth. Animal assisted therapy is now widely seen as a legitimate form of therapy with great potential for results rather than some “alternative” form of therapy with little scientific basis. Time spent with therapy dogs can have a significant impact on stress levels while increasing levels of endorphins but therapy is clearly about much more than feeling “happy” for a short period a day. For those struggling with drug and alcohol related problems, the chance to work with horses through equine therapy can be a fantastic stepping stone towards progression and recovery.

Why are therapists using horses?

Horses have a reputation for being sensitive animals with nervous dispositions, which means that they may not sound like the ideal candidates for animal therapy; however, this close understanding of the emotions and actions of the patient and the chance to gain the horse's trust be controlling those emotions means that there are even greater rewards for success. Practitioners also talk about the honesty of a horse in this relationship. Horses will reward positive behavior and react badly to negative behavior, something that addicts may not have experienced for a while if their habit is being enabled by cautious friends and family members.

A client that comes into their first session with clear signs of stress and anxiety may struggle to interact with the horse but once they start to open up and become more at ease with the situation, the horse will become more accepting and reward the patient for their hard work.

What is involved in equine therapy and is this a psychotherapeutic tool?

Equine therapy is known under quite a few names such as equine-assisted therapy, equine-assisted learning and equine-assisted psychotherapy. Each name has slightly different connotations so may be used in different ways under different circumstances. While equine-assisted psychotherapy is accurate, it is a harsh, clinical term that may not be so helpful to the patient as equine-assisted learning. This a psychotherapeutic tool where therapists can discuss the actions and progress seen in the session for future growth ‐ for example discussing the potential reasons why the horse did not initially trust the patient or how they felt when they able to groom the horse ‐ but the term 'learning' gives greater focus to the lessons in physical and cognitive skills that clients can take away.

Equine therapy is not necessarily about riding as it is about leading the horse for a walk around the paddock, feeding them or grooming them.

What are some of the components and goals of equine therapy?

The use of horses in animal therapy is designed to bring about many different feelings and goals so women can deal with their addiction in a clear, beneficial way. Some of these goals include the following:

  • Courage
  • Self-control
  • Self-confidence
  • Personal responsibility
  • Respect
  • Empathy
  • Acceptance
  • Communication

Control, self-worth, courage and responsibility are crucial for clients dealing with substance abuse problems, those with a problem with self-control that led to addiction, those that have lost feelings of self-worth because of their struggles, those that need the courage to take the next step to sobriety and control and those that need to take responsibility for their actions in order to move on. Men and Women in need of help for drug and alcohol abusemay have lost all sense of responsibility in their lives and let the addiction take hold but, by working with the horses, they are able to regain some of that. There is not the pressure of a long term relationship with high stakes but the knowledge that a horse was happy and well-fed because of their actions can be a fantastic stepping stone to future actions and progression.

Respect, communication, empathy and acceptance are all tools to help women understand their problems, and the problems of those around them, and to help them progress with their recovery and mental state. Respect for the horse means respect for others and the addition of empathy can take addicts away from their personal problems to see the problem in wider circumstances, again with the other clients taking part. Clients also need to accept their situation in order to deal with it and communicating this with others is a helpful psychotherapeutic tool. It can be hard for people to do this with other addicts or a therapist straight away so the horse provides the ideal companion who will simply listen to what they are being told.

The use of equine therapy for drug and alcohol problems can be incredibly beneficial.

Equine therapy can be used as treatment for a range of issues including mental health problems, stress, anxiety and other psychosocial issues and the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse fits in with these well. It is all about progression with any therapeutic practices, about working at a problem and gradually dealing with issues to make small steps towards improvement. Animal therapy has always been a great tool for getting patients to relax and open up, which is why therapy dog are so widely used for people dealing with stress and anxiety, but equine-assisted therapy can go further to help patients rediscover traits they had lost, open up about their problems and emotions and experience some meaningful achievements along the way. For men and women with substance abuse issues, this reconnection to their selves and others is vital for beating the sense of worthlessness and hopelessness that comes with addiction.

These clients cannot rely on equine therapy alone to deal with their problems and there is no magic moment when all their troubles melt away. It is, however, a crucial tool in ongoing therapy that can really make a huge difference in the mental state of the patient and their ability to progress with further treatment.