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Equine Therapy: Using Horses to Help Heal

Equine Therapy

Horses and humans have been closely connected for thousands of years. For early cave dwellers, wild horses were a food source. When horses were domesticated approximately 6,000 years ago, the world changed because humans now had a much faster way of working and traveling. Because horses are herd animals with a sense of pecking order, horses were well suited to domestication.

Horses have been used in warfare, hunting, transportation, herding, and recreation. Horses have pulled chariots, carts, wagons, and carriages. They have carried soldiers into battle, taken goods to market, and pulled a plow. The horse also played an important role in the transfer of language, culture, and technology as stated by the equine heritage institute. Horses also provide us with leisure time activities, whether you like to ride or just observe these beautiful animals.

Bond Between Horses and Humans Celebrated in Art, Books, and Film

The bond between horses and humans is undeniable and has been celebrated throughout history in many art forms. Cave paintings depicting horses have been found in France and date back 15,000 years. In more recent times, horses and the bond between horses and their owner have been memorialized in books and on film. The books Black Beauty and National Velvet are childhood classics. The film Seabiscuit, released in 2003 and starring Tobey Maguire and Jeff Bridges, was based on a horse that competed into the 1940s and was seen as a symbol of hope during the Great Depression. The Horse Whisperer, starring Robert Redford and Scarlett Johansson, depicts a horse trainer who helps a young girl recover from a serious car accident by rehabilitating her horse.

Horses for Mental Health

Ask any horse lover and they will say that spending time with a horse is one of the best stress reduction techniques around. Being with a horse, whether you are going out for a trail ride, riding in the ring, or just hanging out around stables searching for a friendly-looking horse who would like some carrots, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and improves overall health. You are outside doing physical activity and enjoying the companionship of a beautiful animal. Many horse lovers have said that spending time with a horse is “therapy.”

Equine Therapy: A Complementary Therapy for Mental Illness and Addiction

Because of the strong bond between horses and humans, the recognizable benefits to spending time with horses, and the particular attributes of horses, a growing number of addiction and mental illness treatment centers use equine therapy (also known as horse-assisted therapy) as one of the alternative therapies they offer. Equine therapy as we think of it today began to be used in Europe in the 1940s, but has roots in ancient Greece. According to an article on the therapeutic value of horses that appeared in Psychology Today, horses make good therapy animals for several reasons. Horses are herd animals and they are used to a pecking order, which makes it possible for them to recognize a human as the “boss.” In particular, horses have a strong emotional sense; they pick up on what other horses and the humans around them are feeling and can serve as a “mirror” to a client’s feelings.

Equine therapy can encompass different activities depending on the facility. In some facilities, the emphasis is on spending time in the barn doing “groundwork”—feeding, grooming, mucking out stalls, and other tasks necessary to the horses’ wellbeing. In other facilities the focus may be more on riding. The horses used for equine therapy are calm, even-tempered, and well-trained. All of these activities are carried out with supervision to protect the clients and the horses from being injured and equine therapy is always supervised by a licensed mental health professional.

Benefits of Equine Therapy

The benefits of equine therapy to clients in addiction recovery programs are numerous and include increased mindfulness, positive nonverbal communication, and reduced stress, anxiety, and feelings of guilt. One very important benefit is in helping clients identify their feelings. In an article that appeared in Psychology Today, Constance Scharff, PhD, writes “Addicts, in particular, are known for numbing their feelings through the use of drugs and alcohol. When they do get clean, they don’t know what to do with, or often how to identify, their feelings. This is a confusing and frustrating period for addicts. The horse, however, provides information to the client….Addicts and other trauma survivors have to learn how to identify their emotions in order to work through them.”

Several research studies that looked at the effectiveness of equine therapy in addiction recovery were recently conducted at Oslo University Hospital. Researchers there found that equine therapy gave clients a sense of purpose, that the work they were doing in caring for the horses was useful and necessary, and increased the likelihood that they would stay with the treatment program. In addition, the equine therapy program gave the clients a sense of identity beyond being an addict in a treatment program. Their sense of well-being and self-worth was increased and enhanced. One client stated that when he was working at the barn he felt like he was being seen as “who I really am.”

The ultimate goal of treatment for addiction or mental illness is helping people become who they really are. An equine therapy program can be a powerful tool in that pursuit. An addiction recovery program should offer a variety of treatment options for its clients. In treatment, one size definitely does not fit all. In substance abuse recovery, the whole person needs to be treated, not just his or her addiction. A multidisciplinary approach that offers holistic treatment modalities in addition to traditional talk therapy can be highly beneficial. Equine therapy can be an effective alternative therapy because of its success in helping people to identify their feelings and because it provides a safe place to process emotions. Equine therapy also reduces stress, anxiety, and feelings of guilt. If you or someone you know is seeking help in overcoming an addiction or other mental health issue, we can help you break free from a life controlled by drugs or alcohol. For more information, contact Enlightened Solutions at (833) 801-5483.