Sometimes the women and men seeking sex addiction treatment at The Ranch learn that we use equine therapy as part of our healing regimen, and they wonder what they heck riding horses has to do with their particular problem. They ask, “How will traipsing around the woods on the back of a 1,000 pound animal help me with my addiction?” In response, we usually just smile and suggest they wait and see, because we know how powerful experiential therapies can be.
Out of Your Head and Onto a Horse
Most of the time in sex addiction treatment, our clients are working on their issues in formalized therapy settings, both individual and group. As such, they are very much “in their heads.” In other words, they are intensely focused on developing an intellectual understanding of their issue and its consequences while also developing and implementing healthier alternative behaviors. And all of that is well and good and necessary to treatment.
But what happens when we take our clients out of the controlled psychotherapeutic environment and place them in a more natural setting, where they can’t intellectualize every little thought and behavior? This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Consider the following example:
An adult male was in treatment for sexual addiction, primarily at the behest of his betrayed wife. In therapy sessions he was great, consistently saying all of the right things. After just a few weeks in treatment, it was clear that he intellectually understood his disorder and how it was impacting both himself and his wife. And his wife, when she came to The Ranch for family therapy weekend, was thrilled with his progress, thinking maybe he was finally becoming the caring, thoughtful man she’d always hoped for.
As family weekend progressed, the addict and his wife got along beautifully — until we took them out of the controlled therapy setting. Nowhere were their problems more evident than at the equine therapy center, where they were asked by the therapist to enter the corral and to each choose a horse (simply taking the reins and leading their horses back to the entrance). The husband looked at his wife and said, “Wait here.” Then he went into the paddock, chose two horses, and brought them back.
The therapist asked the wife, “Is he always like this?” The wife nodded, and suddenly the husband saw one of his major issues in action. As much as he’d been working on his need to control and micro-manage every little thing, and as well as he understood the issue and was able to pay lip service to it in therapy, the moment he was faced with a real-world task this problem resurfaced full-force.
At that moment, the addict’s therapy took a huge leap forward. He went from intellectually understanding one of his issues to emotionally understanding that issue from his wife’s perspective. And that made it easier to understand all of his other issues, including his sexual addiction, from her perspective.
Real-World Teaching Moments
That is the beauty of equine therapy (and other forms of experiential therapy, such as art therapy, psychodrama, and even the guided fishing trips we sometimes do at The Ranch). These therapies are designed to tap beneath the conscious thought process, bringing out the true and emotionally reactive individual in the heat of the moment. In these less formalized therapy settings, clients learn how far they have come, and how much further they may need to go.
When one views alternative therapies in this way, it is unsurprising that research tells us they are really quite useful. In fact, equine therapy has proven to be effective not only with addictions, but with depression, anxiety, conduct disorders, and numerous other issues. Specific benefits include increased confidence, a more realistic self-image, and improved communication skills (especially nonverbal communication). More importantly from a sex addiction recovery standpoint, research tells us that equine therapy results in decreased behavioral, psychological, and psychosocial challenges.
Given the benefits of horse therapy, coupled with The Ranch’s uniquely rustic setting, equine therapy is a natural choice for our clients. It’s highly effective, and it’s also restorative and fun for everyone involved. What could be better than that?
By Robert Weiss, LCSW, CSAT-S