“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”
When most people picture addiction treatment, group therapy sessions and one-on-one counseling on a therapist’s couch probably come to mind. But healing can happen in a variety of different places.
Sometimes opening the door to a different setting can allow those in recovery to discover new insights or process what they’ve learned in therapy. Just being out in the quiet of nature can help people relax and find answers — possibly to questions that aren’t being asked elsewhere. These natural spaces may be found in a trail through the woods, a sunny pasture or even a rustic barn.2
And horses — long-time residents of grassy fields and stables — have been found to serve as excellent therapy animals for humans seeking a safe, healing relationship.
Equine Therapy Provides Emotional and Relational Benefits
Equine therapy doesn’t necessarily include riding. Just touching and walking with horses can provide a therapeutic benefit for many people recovering from drug abuse or mental health issues. Activities that teach the human partner and horse to work together are the basis for interaction.
Horses used in equine therapy programs are chosen for their calm temperament and trained to safely interact with patients. These gentle giants relate to humans as they would to one of their herd. They listen without judging. They offer companionship without expectation. They reflect their human partner’s moods and intuitively know when to allow space or physically comfort a person with nearness. This has value for the participant and may give the therapist guiding the equine interaction insights about their needs.3
People who take part in equine therapy report feeling understood by their horses in ways they may have never experienced with other humans. Horses are very attentive to humans and their physical and mental states. In fact, studies have shown that horses can hear a human heartbeat from four feet away and sometimes even synchronize their own heartbeat with a person’s the way they would with other horses in a herd.3
Dr. Marcel Montañez, an equine therapist and professor at New Mexico State University (NMSU), explained the value of using horses this way in an interview with the NMSU News Center: “Horses have no need to pretend that they’re anything other than what they are. At some level, in order to develop completely as a human being, you need to be aware that there’s no need to be anything other than what you are. When you develop a certain level of comfort and confidence about who you are internally, then you’re free to be part of herds. You’re free to have relationships with people.”3
Equine therapy helps patients form relationships with counselors and other members of their therapy group in a casual atmosphere.4 Sharing an interest in caring for or riding horses serves as a bridge to making friends.
Exploring nature together with horses is a unique experience. As a prey animal, horses are highly sensitive to the sights and sounds around them.3 Without a word, a horse communicates with their human partner by their expression, movements of their ears and eyes or by their body tension. It’s as if they’re pointing out both beauty and danger in their surroundings to the person they’ve accepted as part of their herd. A person in their care feels both protected and protective of their equine partner.
Some equine therapy activities focus on building trust with the horse, and this may serve as a metaphor for learning to trust oneself, life and other people. Participants build communication skills through their interactions with horses, which may, in turn, improve how they communicate with people.
Equine therapy also helps people understand their fears as they work with the horse to accept new situations. One woman in recovery reported that she understood her own fears better because of helping calm her horse when it became frightened of a parachute she had placed in the arena. She felt the horse’s fear symbolized her own fears, and, as she comforted him, she felt healed of her own past trauma.5 Veterans with PTSD, prison inmates and children with ADHD have had similar experiences discovering and overcoming their internal fears while working with horses during therapy.6
Is Equine Therapy Effective in Addiction Treatment?
The emotional benefits of equine therapy can be hard to quantify. So how do we know it’s an effective tool in helping people recover from addiction? Because research shows equine therapy increases both patients’ time in and likelihood of completing treatment.7
According to a study published in Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, patients who received horse-assisted therapy stayed in treatment much longer than those who didn’t — an average of 141 days versus 70 days — and were almost four times as likely to remain in treatment for 90 days or more. Nearly 57 percent of equine therapy participants completed their recovery program, compared to just 14 percent of those who received treatment without horse-assisted therapy.7
And equine therapy doesn’t have to end when treatment does. Alumni may choose to continue interacting with horses in their own recovery journey, whether riding or just caring for them. Owning a horse isn’t even necessary since many barns are open to volunteers who want to help groom and care for horses or work as a therapeutic assistant.
At Skywood, we believe therapeutic recreation can offer critical processing time and a much-needed contrast to traditional talk therapies. Read out more about our Equine Therapy program or call our free helpline, 269-280-4673, to learn more about the treatment options that are available.
By Pat Matuszak
1 Buechner, Frederick. “Listening to Your Life.” FrederickBuechner.com, Accessed March 22, 2018.
2 Kern-Godal, Ann, et al. “More Than Just a Break from Treatment: How Substance Use Disorder Patients Experience the Stable Environment in Horse-Assisted Therapy.” Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, October 6, 2016.
3 Chavez, Adrianna. “NMSU Professor Studies Complex Relationship Between Horses and Humans.” New Mexico State University News Center, August 3, 2015.
4 Kern-Godal, Ann, et al. “Contribution of the Patient–Horse Relationship to Substance Use Disorder Treatment: Patients’ Experiences.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being, June 9, 2016.
5 Thaisen, Joshua. “Horses That Heal: How Equine Therapy Is Helping People Find Peace of Mind.” The Guardian, June 23, 2015.
6 Hayes, Tim. “How Horses Help Us Heal.” Equus, July 14, 2015.
7 Kern-Godal, Ann, et al. “Substance Use Disorder Treatment Retention and Completion: a prospective study of horse-assisted therapy (HAT) for young adults.” Addiction Science & Clinical Practice, October 14, 2015.