Encouraging patients to interact with animals isn’t a new concept in medicine. You likely have heard news stories of therapy dogs visiting pediatric hospitals or a cat that lives among nursing home residents. Now, addiction treatment specialists are using horses to help alcoholics find sobriety. If you or a loved one needs treatment for alcohol abuse or alcoholism, keep reading to learn more about how equine-assisted therapy can be particularly beneficial.
Equine-assisted therapy involves more than simply allowing the person to be near an animal or pet it. In this type of treatment, a trained therapist uses a horse as a tool to help someone connect with his or her emotions as well as build essential core skills. Horses have been used to assist people of all ages recover from a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and autism spectrum disorders. A number of addiction recovery centers have started using equine therapy to help recovering addicts.
Why Equine Therapy Works
While research in the area of addiction treatment, in general, has not focused on examining the effectiveness of equine therapy, studies dealing with other forms of animal-assisted therapy show measurable benefit. For example, a study of therapy using dogs found that as little as five minutes of interaction with the animals lowered stress hormones and raised levels of endorphins, which act as the body’s natural feel-good chemicals.
Working with horses has been shown to reduce anxiety in violent psychiatric patients. A small study revealed that people with a history of violence who received equine-assisted therapy demonstrated marked improvement in anxiety levels. In fact, the improvement was greater than that of a similar group that received canine-assisted therapy. Studies like these suggest that working with horses in a therapeutic environment can lower stress and anxiety while increasing the hormones responsible for regulating mood. As a result, an alcoholic can begin to build the healthy emotional foundation necessary to get and stay sober.
Reducing negative emotions is essential for helping an alcoholic feel comfortable while working with an addiction therapist and rebuilding relationships. However, it can be especially helpful in dealing with young alcoholics. Addicted teens, especially those who come from unstable environments, sometimes come into treatment in a state of near-constant emotional arousal or stress. Working with an animal, such as a horse, can be crucial for helping them relax enough to focus on their recovery.
Equine-assisted therapy is not intended to be a sole form of addiction treatment. Rather, it’s designed to act as part of an integrated, long-term strategy to help a person stay sober. Recovering alcoholics will still need to participate in addiction counseling, a support group (like a 12-step program), and perhaps medical treatment or psychotherapy for other conditions, like depression, which can contribute to substance abuse.
What Happens During Equine Therapy
Alcoholism is a complex mental health condition that requires more than just getting the alcohol abuser to quit drinking. The addict must learn to identify the emotions and behaviors that drive the self-destructive behavior. Additionally, alcoholics must learn to cope with those feelings and manage those behaviors in a healthy way.
Sessions are often held in groups and usually take place every day or several times a week. The treatment is led by a mental health professional with certification in animal-assisted therapy. You will take on responsibilities, which may include feeding, training, or grooming. This therapy will:
Hone Physical Skills — Some of the skill-building work in this type of addiction treatment is physical. For example, you will learn and practice skills like grooming, harnessing or cleaning stalls. Other times, group members may be asked to exercise the animals. In some programs, riding may be part of the program. These tasks give alcoholics a new focus, one that’s productive. Caring for an animal becomes a good way to replace the unhealthy habits of addiction to alcohol.
Build Cognitive Skills — Other skills involve re-building thinking patterns. Horses are known to be sensitive animals, reacting to both physical and non-physical clues from their human companions. The therapist will use this quality to help an alcoholic learn about his or her own actions. For instance, you may be prompted to consider why the horse was reluctant to cooperate after a certain interaction and how to change your behavior based on that.
Animals like horses also offer an alcoholic instant and genuine feedback, which can be a sharp contrast from other relationships the addict has had. A horse will not hide or lie about its own emotions or actions like a loved one often will. The horse will also not do anything to enable poor choices by the recovering alcoholic. This allows you to learn how to make better decisions, a cognitive skill that will nurture a sober lifestyle.
Build Trust –– You may come into treatment uncomfortable around others or afraid to communicate even basic needs and emotions. Equine-assisted therapy allows you to build a trusting relationship with another creature in a non-threatening environment. Rather than sitting in a controlled and, sometimes, intimidating therapist’s office, you can work in a relaxed outdoor setting. In addition, the horse becomes a non-judgmental presence—something that is often starkly absent from the lives of many alcoholics. This connection can help you lay the foundation for building the relationships needed to maintain sobriety, including those with addictions counselors or support group members.
Addiction treatment that incorporates equine-assisted therapy can be a key tool for building the physical and cognitive skills that help alcoholics achieve long-term sobriety. Consult an addiction specialist or treatment center to learn more about this unique treatment and to find out if it’s the right therapy for you.