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Does Equine Therapy Work for Addiction Treatment?

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Addiction treatment must be tailored to the individual to achieve success and using what some may see as “out-of-the-ordinary” approaches are often applied. While those who ride horses can attest to how calm and soothing riding is, does equine therapy work for addiction treatment? Between 1999 and 2018, nearly 450,000 people died from overdoses that included prescription or illicit opioids, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The opioid crisis has shaped the United States in a way unthinkable and helping those overcome their addiction has required something different to achieve meaningful sobriety. 

What Is Equine Therapy?

Equine is a term to speak about or relate to horses, and equine therapy is something that involves horses. Although it may come off odd to the public, equine therapy is becoming immensely popular in addiction treatment. Those struggling with various ailments will participate in equine therapy to achieve mental relief, spiritual empowerment, and build relationships, particularly in those struggling to overcome a substance use disorder (SUD).

It may seem as though equine therapy is horseback riding, which most look at as a luxury, but that’s only a fraction of the process. The therapies include challenging tasks for the individual, including responsibilities like feeding, caring for, and grooming the horses. Horses are brilliant creatures, and establishing a relationship with them requires trust. You cannot abuse horses and expect them to live with it, and this expectation from a horse builds responsibility for the person in question. The responsibility is something they likely do not have in their life. 

What Makes Equine Therapy Useful?

Equine therapy has been proven useful in a variety of ways, but it’s mostly helpful in building relationship skills. Working alongside a horse to gain trust teaches someone the skills necessary for daily interactions with others. Some of these skills include:

  • Becoming more focused and resilient
  • Improving assertiveness and confidence
  • Learning how to balance internal feelings
  • Developing an understanding of boundaries
  • Feeling needed and connected
  • Developing critical non-verbal communication skills
  • Positive emotional growth
  • Ridding yourself of negative emotions
  • Learning how to relax and be present in the moment

As you might expect, recovery isn’t a guaranteed ticket for long-term sobriety. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 40 to 60 percent of those in recovery will relapse at some point in their first year. Some estimates place that number as high as 90 percent. 

Unfortunately, relapsing is part of recovery. It’s the most glaring issue that affects those struggling with substance use disorders. Although a person has recovered physically and the drugs have exited their system, they have not built up the skills necessary to develop relationships, leading to depression, isolation, and push someone to seek relief with their drug of choice. 

Will I Benefit From Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy will prove beneficial for anyone looking to grab control of their lives during their addiction recovery. Many who succumb to addiction will suffer significant blows to their confidence, making it difficult to interact with others – this can lead to self-isolation and using. Working alongside horses will help the individual understand how to control their impulses. Equine therapy in addiction treatment has shown positive effects on those with different disabilities that create problems with impulse control and social interactions. 

Equine therapy will also help with co-occurring disorders, including:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Eating disorders, such as bulimia or anorexia
  • Behavioral issues, like aggressive behavior
  • Communication problems
  • Relationship issues

What Is Equine Therapy for Mental Health?

Equine therapy is not solely for addiction treatment, and it can also be utilized in mental health treatment that involves horses. It’s often called equine-assisted therapy (EAT). It may seem like a peculiar way to treat mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, but it has emerged as an extremely prevalent means of assistance. A majority of those in treatment for their mental health take part in equine therapy as a means of relief and empowering themselves. 

Working with horses involves more than cleaning, grooming, or riding. A therapist will encourage the individual to set goals for each outing – one session may include the client leading the horse from one spot to another or placing a halter on the horse. They will follow this up with discussions about the thoughts and ideas they used to complete this task. 

This particular application helps with anxiety because it encourages them to be focused on the present instead of worrying about the future or past. They need to communicate with the therapist, animal, or handler. Living in the moment like this helps individuals with other mental health conditions like depression. Other techniques utilized in equine-assisted therapy include:

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps clients to focus on the animal they’re working with. Equines are keen at sensing danger and will respond with hyper-awareness to something around them, and a client can see or feel these changes while observing the animal. The client must remain calm and take responsibility to remove fear from the animal. 

Scheduling is also standard during therapy because individuals with specific disorders can start avoiding personal responsibilities. Scheduling activities to care for animals will help the person regain responsibility and structure. 

Equines are perfectly suited for this type of therapy because they’re intelligent and sensitive. They are also non-judgemental and unbiased. Equines will only react to how a person emotes or behaves around them, and they don’t care about past mistakes or appearance. Clients mention how much of a relief this is and how it boosts their confidence and self-esteem. 

Where Can I Find Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy has been available since 1969, but it has only recently been taken more seriously in addiction treatment. Some of it stems from its popularity among celebrities. Still, the therapy continues to grow more every day, and people are starting to use it as they recover from addiction or other ailments. Treatment centers across the United States may offer these treatments or alternatives that a client can utilize. You should contact your treatment provider to help you choose a facility right for you.

History of Equine Therapy

Therapy involving horses stretches back to ancient times. You can find Greek literature dating as far back as 600 B.C. that discusses horseback riding as therapy. When you fast-forward to 1946, this particular therapy was introduced in Scandinavia to help those recovering from poliomyelitis. In the 1960s, it was introduced in North America through CARD (Communication Association of Riding Of the DIsabled). It was an encouraging form of motivation for those struggling with disabilities. 

Although other animals may be used in therapy, horses are the most popular because of the immediate feedback. Horses are also large and intimidating, forcing the person to trust the horse and again trust the animal won’t hurt them. 

While the Palm Beach Institute does not offer equine therapy at its facility, we can connect you with a program that utilizes this therapy.

Sources

NIMH (October 2020) Substance Use and Mental Health. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health/index.shtml

NIH (October 2020) Can Addiction Be Treated Successfully? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

NIMH (October 2020) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml

NCBI (August 2013) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279297/

CDC (October 2020) Understanding the Epidemic. from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html

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