One form of therapy that has proven especially beneficial for individuals in recovery is equine-assisted therapy. This therapy involves developing a relationship with and caring for a horse, which can harbor many surprising benefits for people with a range of physical and mental health conditions. Learn more about equine-assisted therapy and how it could help you find lasting recovery.
The road to recovery can be complex as you are overcoming a substance use disorder (SUD). In particular, the initial stages of recovery can have you facing waves of intense emotion and even feelings of isolation. Therapy is one tool designed to help you address your past without ruminating upon it, learn to understand your triggers, and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Therapy can make a significant difference when it comes to maintaining long-term recovery.
It’s important to note that therapy is much more than meeting as an individual or group to talk through your issues with a licensed professional. In fact, there is a wide variety of holistically-intended therapy options designed to address not only the addiction but the entire person, both body and mind. Employing multiple modalities is crucial to helping you build the tools you need to heal.
What Is Equine-Assisted Therapy?
While animal-assisted therapy is a broad range of techniques that can utilize pets like dogs and cats, or other farm animals like cattle, goats, and rabbits, equine-assisted therapy is by far the most common. Horses are especially intelligent, sensitive creatures known to mirror their human counterparts, which can be especially beneficial in a therapy setting. In fact, therapists believe horses have a unique ability to sense a person’s innermost thoughts and emotions, which can impact their own behavior.
Equine-assisted therapy uses this mirroring capability to create a therapeutic setting that can prove beneficial to people with a range of mental health conditions. Horses mirror true emotions back to the person experiencing them. Unlike traditional therapy sessions where an individual may hide how they really feel, when working with a horse, there is an openness that can help promote emotional healing.
Equine Therapy and Addiction Recovery
Therapy can be an incredibly useful tool in the healing process, but what is most important is finding therapies that work best for your needs. Exploring various options is a great way to find what clicks for you. One of the reasons so many people use equine-assisted therapy is because it is so adaptable and approachable for individuals of all ages and experience levels. In fact, you do not need any prior horse experience to reap the many benefits of equine therapy. Let’s explore the most significant.
One of the many benefits of this form of therapy is the comfort and freedom that come with knowing horses are judgment-free and unbiased. In traditional therapy sessions, your therapist is there to provide support without judgment. However, it is not uncommon for people to doubt or question this concept. Fear of judgment or shame can prevent many people from opening up to a therapist, and it can take time to develop a sense of trust and a willingness to be vulnerable.
Gaining better self-awareness allows you to better identify and cope with your feelings. As you likely have experienced, this can be extremely difficult, especially during early recovery. This can stem from the fact that substance use often begins when people use drugs or alcohol to numb emotional or physical pain. When a person chooses recovery, long-buried emotions can begin to bubble over and can be overwhelming if not managed.
With horses, you’ll feel a sense of peace that comes with knowing that this animal is approaching you with a clean slate. They have no awareness of your past and will simply respond to the behaviors and emotions you demonstrate. That’s why equine therapy is well-known for providing a space in which people with SUD can be vulnerable and honest.
Gaining Better Self-Awareness
As mentioned, horses are sensitive to movement and emotion, and they are known to carefully observe and even mirror the emotions of the person caring for them. In a therapeutic setting, this mirroring can foster a relationship between the client and the horse. The horse shows a level of deep understanding that can be a comfort, especially if you feel unseen and alone. This is also a useful tool for gaining better self-awareness.
Over time, you can clearly see how your behavior and emotions impact the horse and begin to understand how those things are impacting you, as well. In addition, observing these interactions can help your therapist provide feedback and monitor your progress.
Identifying and Coping with Feelings
For therapy to be successful, the earliest important step is learning to identify, face, and cope with a wide range of emotions and the intrusive thoughts that often come with them. Intrusive thoughts affect everyone but can be especially harmful to individuals in recovery. These thoughts and emotions can lead to reactions that are harmful and could impact recovery.
With their unique ability to sense emotions, horses can help to expedite your process of identifying and coping with your feelings, enabling you to stamp out intrusive thoughts. A horse will mimic what it perceives, so anxiety in you could create skittishness in the horse – but a horse responds best when you are open and calm. Seeing an actual response through the horse based on your emotions can help you identify and manage emotional extremes.
If you’re like many people who have a history of substance use disorder or struggle with mental health issues, you may find it difficult to connect with others. Equine therapy can help people who would otherwise have difficulty getting close to others develop a deep bond with the horse. Horses make excellent communicators and are adept at reading and understanding nonverbal cues. The skills you learn to understand and communicate with the horse can be applied to interacting with other people in your life.
It’s important to note that this form of therapy involves much more than riding a horse. Participants also learn how to halter, lead, and groom the horse, reinforcing ideas of awareness and respect for another living being. Your therapist will be there as well to help you observe the behavior of the horse and interpret what it is trying to communicate. This can help you understand the true nature of behavior and response between two individuals, allowing room for self-evaluation.
Setting and Respecting Boundaries
The ability to set and respect boundaries plays a significant role in maintaining long-term recovery. This includes boundaries with yourself and with others and respecting boundaries with yourself and others. Since it is not uncommon for individuals who have struggled with substance use to also struggle with setting boundaries, a conscious effort to improve and consistent attention to boundaries is crucial. For many, equine therapy presents an opportunity to practice understanding and respecting boundaries. Horses used for equine therapy are often mild-mannered and have a friendly temperament.
However, they are still proud creatures who have no issue enforcing their boundaries. If a horse does not feel comfortable or feels that a boundary has been crossed, it will use both subtle and overt clues to indicate the issue. In addition, a horse will not back down from their boundary and will often push back against people who try to control or dominate them. Developing the ability to pick up on and respect these cues can be used as a therapeutic tool as you consider the ways you can establish and respect boundaries in your own life.
Building Confidence and Overcoming Fears
Addiction can leave you feeling worthless and afraid of what life could be like without your substance of choice. A lack of confidence can cause you to be hesitant to interact or even fearful of others, which can cause defensive or aggressive behavior. This can make traditional forms of therapy difficult to attend to.
Equine therapy provides a different perspective. Horses are large, powerful creatures, which can cause people working with horses to feel afraid of their lack of control. In addition, in a therapeutic setting, people may be intimidated or nervous that they will be unable to develop a bond with the horse. Instead of retreating in fear or feeling the need to be defensive, equine therapy can help you develop the ability to live in the moment, tolerate feeling uncomfortable, and move forward.
In this way, equine therapy allows you to face your fears in a safe environment. Working with horses can help you overcome your fears and bolster your confidence while caring for the horses provides a sense of purpose and routine just when you feel your life is otherwise chaotic.
People in recovery can struggle with the concept of trust, which can make it difficult to open up to another person in traditional therapy settings. Equine therapy provides a way to give and receive trust with an animal that has no hidden agenda. Horses are straightforward creatures and do not judge, blame, lie, or manipulate. This in itself can be comforting, providing you with a sense of peace when working with the horse.
Horses also have a willingness to bond and develop deep relationships with the people who care for and respect them. In fact, a horse will not stop trusting you unless you give them a reason to do so. Working with horses can help you open up and find the confidence to start trusting others again. This, in turn, helps you build healthy relationships and support systems.
Taking Care of Yourself and Others
Substance use disorder can cause a person to detach emotionally. This often leads to a breakdown of self-care and self-love.This is why, in the midst of addiction, you may have stopped caring for yourself. This can include a decrease in hygiene care, eating too much or too little, and a general lack of motivation.
Horses require work. They need to be watered, fed, exercised, and groomed. This not only helps develop a bond but also establishes pride in caring for another living creature. Working with a horse in the presence of a therapist can help you realize the value of care when it comes to yourself and others.
Developing Mindfulness and Positivity
Recovery can cause a host of emotional triggers and intrusive thoughts to surface. To look at it simplistically, mindfulness is the ability to actively participate in self-reflection to reset the mind to be present and focus on positive thoughts. Learning to identify your triggers in the moment and how to cope with them in a way that is healthy is one of the most valuable assets to long-term recovery.
Who Can Benefit from Equine-Assisted Therapy?
Equine therapy can be effective for people experiencing a number of different mental health symptoms and disorders, including:
Individuals with various anxiety conditions often struggle with intrusive thoughts and dwelling on the past. They also may struggle with the uncertainties of the future. Working with horses provides a way to stay in the present and release stress.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
This condition can cause individuals to have increased reactivity to certain situations that remind them of a traumatic event. They may also struggle with nightmares, intrusive memories, and a need to avoid people and certain situations. Working with horses can provide an ability to reconnect, remain grounded, and address trauma.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Equine therapy can be an active, hands-on therapy that is accessible to individuals of all ages who are experiencing ADHD. This therapy provides the means to practice focus, pay attention, watch for social cues, and respect boundaries. Working with horses can provide a sense of accomplishment for people who may have difficulty completing tasks otherwise.
Addiction and SUD
Many individuals struggling with substance use disorder are also suffering from a co-occurring mental health condition, such as anxiety, depression, or PTSD. Recovery therapy is designed to help a person build trust, communicate openly, and develop coping mechanisms, among many other tools. Equine therapy can help with all these key areas.
Can I Benefit from Equine-Assisted Therapy?
Equine therapy continues to grow in popularity due to its ability to benefit individuals struggling with a variety of conditions. This form of therapy can be especially beneficial for those in recovery. While the main goal of recovery is to maintain sobriety, this goal is composed of many smaller factors, such as gaining confidence, building trust, developing a willingness to be vulnerable, learning boundaries, and caring for yourself and others, just to name a few.
Equine therapy helps individuals who may struggle to connect with others develop an ability to connect with a highly intelligent, responsive animal. Horses are large, powerful, and perceptive of the deepest emotions and behaviors of a person. They hold no bias, never judge, and provide a clean slate to help an individual grow.
Equine-Assisted Therapy at Lilac Recovery Center
At Lilac Recovery Center, we offer a variety of substance use disorder services in San Diego, tailored to meet the unique needs of our clients. As we strive to develop the right program for each individual seeking support for their recovery journey, you may find that equine therapy could help you meet your recovery goals. Contact our compassionate care team to learn more about our services.
CADC II, Certified AOD Counselor
Nora Jenkins has made the quality and committed care we provide at Lilac Recovery Center possible. Nora is experienced in providing care to assist in rebuilding relationships to support healthy, long-term recovery. Her professional background includes clinical management, program administration, and counseling.