Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Horses are extremely sensitive to what humans are feeling and projecting. This is because horses are prey animals and humans are predators. Prey animals mirror their environment in order to feel safe. “If you have internal stuff going on but are good at hiding it, the horse senses that,” Risler says. The horses may react by keeping their distance or by approaching the person, depending on how the person feels and what they are projecting. This can teach clients valuable lessons about how others may perceive them and leaves little room for inauthenticity — common themes in early addiction recovery when people are beginning to peel back self-protective layers that have prevented them from knowing and revealing their true selves.

Risler gives the example of a client who says they don’t have a problem with assertiveness; they always speak their mind. This same person might find that their interactions with the horses contradict their stated assertiveness. The same situation might occur when a person says they are confident but are actually feeling vulnerable. The horses react to what people do, not what they say.

Horses Offer a Blank Slate

In traditional psychotherapy, clients talk about situations and feelings from their perspective, projecting their own and others’ roles and reactions onto their narratives. Therapists hear only one side of the story. Horses on the other hand, have no expectations. “One of the beauties about this experiential work is that it’s hard for addicts to keep a secret about what is actually happening,” Risler says. “A therapist has already heard about a client’s expectations.” Risler explains that in talk therapy, it’s sometimes hard for the therapist to stay out of the way. Horse therapy allows the client to tell their story and receive feedback without preconceived notions.

For example, before starting a session, the equine therapist might ask a client how they are doing. The client may respond with “fine.” However, when that person is in the arena, horses keep turning away from him or her. The horses are likely sensing something going on with the client and responding to that. The equine therapist can use this as a learning tool. They may guide the client back to the present moment and help them explore that feeling and what is behind it. As the client becomes more aware of their emotions and begins feeling confident and focused, the horses react very differently toward them. It’s a way of seeing relapse-prevention tools like mindfulness and centering work in real time.

Valuable Metaphors for Recovery

Equine therapy offers limitless metaphors for recovery. For example, clients are asked to do different activities with the horses. One activity might be to get the horse to move from one location to another. Risler says when asked if the situation reminds them of anything in their lives, for some clients this opens up a new, profound understanding of how their addiction has affected their loved ones. The client can see themselves like the horse, immovable and unbending unless of their own will. They are desperate to get the horse to move, but powerless to do so, much like their loved ones may have felt about getting them into treatment. For the first time, clients understand the helplessness their loved ones felt, unable to force them to get the help they need. “Addicts may finally realize, ‘Oh my God. I thought I wasn’t doing anything to them. I thought I was just doing it to me,’” Risler says.

Lessons in Powerlessness

Besides equine-assisted therapy’s proven benefits for some of the underlying issues that contribute to addiction like trauma and mental health issues, it provides important lessons in powerlessness and acceptance. Risler explains that clients learn about the games they play with themselves in an effort to control an uncontrollable situation. “Usually with addictions, people want to change and control a lot of things in their world,” Risler says. Equine-therapy exercises teach a lot of lessons about powerlessness. Admitting we are powerless over our addiction and our life has become unmanageable is the first step of the 12 steps.

Equine Therapy in Drug Rehab

Because of its positive impact on people with addictions and the underlying issues that contribute to it, some drug and alcohol rehabs are using equine therapy and therapeutic riding as a regular part of their programming. Not only can this experiential approach help recovering addicts address deep emotional issues and develop resilience and confidence, it can also serve as a relapse-prevention practice they can continue after they’ve left treatment. Risler is a proponent of this trend in addiction treatment. “It is just simply amazing to watch an individual who just transforms; who won’t look you in the eye, won’t say what’s on their mind, and then within days their posture changes, they’re able to speak up, and they are on the road to making positive changes in their life,” he says.


Choose a better life. Choose recovery.