Equine Therapy’s Role in Treatment for Mental Health and Addiction

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Equine therapy, also known as equine-assisted therapy or horse therapy, is a form of experiential therapy involving personal experiences with a horse conducted in a safe environment. Although it is commonly used in physical and occupational therapies, equine therapy can play a huge role in treatment of trauma, substance use, and a variety of other mental health concerns.

Who Can Benefit from Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy has been practiced in the U.S. for over half a century now, and it was initially practiced as a form of physical therapy for recovering from bodily injuries. In the 1990s, people began researching its benefits in mental health treatment. Today, people who need treatment for conditions like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance abuse are considering equine therapy more than ever before.

Those struggling with addiction may especially benefit from equine therapy. Although many rehabilitation programs offer traditional talk therapy, equine therapy can be a great complement to an individual’s recovery. Equine therapy often approaches activities and exercises as metaphors for one’s life and the challenges they are currently facing. As a holistic approach to treatment, equine therapy offers unique spiritual and philosophical benefits that other therapies do not.

How Does Equine Therapy Work?

Usually, in equine treatment settings, a trained therapist will supervise the participant and the horse while taking note of the person’s behavior and emotional reactions to the situation. Additionally, equine therapy is usually part of a more detailed or comprehensive treatment plan for mental illness and substance abuse, acting as a complement to other evidence-based therapies.

However, there are a few kinds of equine therapy for different conditions and patient needs.

  • Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP): EAP is typically used to treat psychological issues and focuses on “groundwork” with horses. These activities might include grooming and feeding, helping the patient understand their behavior, feelings, and thought patterns.
  • Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL): EAL focuses on developing life skills necessary for an individual to thrive. Like EAP, EAL includes grooming and feeding, among other activities, and is intended to help participants become more confident and learn the importance of non-verbal communication and forming relationships.
  • Hippotherapy: With “hippo” coming from the Greek word for horse, hippotherapy can treat a variety of conditions, be they behavioral, psychiatric, developmental, or physical. It can be rehabilitative or therapeutic. Hippotherapy directly involves riding horseback and uses a horse’s natural gait to enhance the patient’s motor and sensory input, which can help improve an individual’s physical and cognitive abilities.

Benefits of Equine Therapy

The presence of horses brings a myriad of benefits to mental health treatment. On one hand, horses are often seen as non-threatening and non-judgmental. This experience can help participants open their minds to new experiences and sensations that alter the way they think and respond to certain situations. These are important qualities that help people in recovery learn how to emotionally regulate, be more self-aware, and improve their self-esteem.

On the other hand, horses are reactive creatures. They are pack animals, astutely aware of others and their environment, so they are highly responsive to the energy and emotions of other people. An individual can learn a lot about themselves based on how a horse responds to them.

This kind of social and behavioral engagement with horses can help people in recovery build trust, learn to communicate effectively, read nonverbal cues, and establish quality relationships. Developing these skills in recovery is crucial for a person to understand and cope with what’s causing them mental distress. In other words, equine therapy serves as an effective, innovative, and interactive form of therapy.

Final Thoughts

While traditional therapies provide structure and strategies for addressing substance abuse directly, equine therapy often functions as a complement to many treatment plans. Equine therapy has been shown to be effective in treating addiction and mental health disorders, with some studies suggesting that it can be more effective than traditional talk therapy in treating addiction and PTSD. This form of experiential therapy is unique because horses are responsive and non-judgmental creatures, and individuals can learn a variety of important life skills and lessons through working with horses.