You’ve probably heard of seeing-eye dogs, therapy dogs and cats or emotional support pets. Animals have been used in the world of therapy for many, many years, offering their consistent, peaceful nature when it’s most needed. In fact, hippotherapy (‘hippo’ being the Greek translation of ‘horse’) dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks, who discussed the healing properties of interacting with horses. Equine-assisted therapy takes this concept and gives individuals the opportunity to work with, care for and encounter horses in a therapy-centered environment.
Why equine-assisted therapy?
Typically, equine-assisted therapy is offered in conjunction with other methods of therapy, allowing a break in routine for the individual, as well as a hands-on, experiential activity. Because of this, equine-assisted therapy isn’t geared toward one particular disorder or age group. Rather, anyone on any recovery journey can benefit from equine-assisted therapy, especially individuals looking for help managing substance use challenges.
Additionally, equine-assisted therapy’s appeal lies in the nature of the horse itself. Animals are non-judgmental and unbiased in a way that humans simply can’t be. Horses trained for use in therapy programs tend to be more gentle and non-reactionary, able to absorb the emotions and actions of the individuals handling them, no matter if they are loud or erratic. The peaceful nature of the animal itself provides a calming environment for most individuals, offering the opportunity to practice mindfulness and attentiveness to the present moment (whether or not the individual realizes this is occurring). In other words, when working with a horse you are fully tuned in to the animal, and attention to other personal matters or the anxieties of the outside world disappear.
Who can benefit from equine-assisted therapy?
Anyone can benefit from equine-assisted therapy. The treatment modality has been used to help with both physical and mental disorders, including ADHD, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, grief and loss, mood disorders, trauma and stress.
Individuals with equine-assisted therapy experience have discussed the immense benefits of working with horses because of these animals’ unique ability to read and respond to the emotions of their caretaker. For example, horses, as prey animals, have a heightened sense of their surroundings at all times and will flee from perceived or real danger. Tuning in to their horse’s emotions gives an individual the freedom to stop focusing on their own emotions and be more aware of their horse’s; it forces the rider to be completely attentive to the horse and its needs. This focus on another can be incredibly therapeutic for someone suffering from anxiety, for example.
Additionally, it is the nature of a horse to mirror the emotions of the person working with them. It’s the same concept of an animal being able to “smell fear,” except in a much less threatening way. Horses sense when their rider is nervous, anxious or at peace, and respond accordingly. This knowledge can help an individual keep their own emotions in check when working around the horse, giving the person a sense of awareness and self-control.
In addition, equine-assisted therapy requires a step out of one’s comfort zone, especially if working alongside animals is a new experience. Equine-therapy sessions are goal oriented – you might initially learn how to groom and feed the horse before moving up to fitting the horse with its halter and leading it around an enclosed space. Riding might not even be included in some of the earlier sessions, but this is intentional. Working with such a large animal can be intimidating, and something as simple as brushing the horse has the potential to be overwhelming purely due to its newness. However, stepping out of that comfort zone as a means of caring for another is proven to be incredibly therapeutic.
Horses don’t withhold love or affection because of what someone experienced in the past. They don’t judge or reserve biases. If you are willing to care for them, they will return that care, no questions asked. By mastering the skills required to care for a horse, individuals can grow in confidence and self-esteem. Motivation is seen to increase in children, teens and adults who have mastered animal care. Not only have they learned the importance of self-service for another creature, but they’ve experienced the reward of hard work and perseverance, giving them the tools they need to continue on their journey towards recovery.
At Real Recovery Clinical Services, we value the importance of fun as an integral part of the healing process. The experience of equine-assisted therapy balances both enjoyment and the learning of critical life skills. Through the human-animal bond, individuals will not only learn about themselves but will journey one step closer to healing and freedom. For more information on equine-assisted therapy, or to learn how to take the next step in pursuing recovery from substance use challenges, call us today at 1 (855) 363-7325 or get to know us online.