By Clinician/Therapist team at Maryland Recovery. All photo content courtesy of MRC
Editor’s note – Time and again horses are helping people battle problems in a most unconventional way. Horses deal in the present, and because they are prey animals they often seek out a connection with their human caretakers. More often than not, when there is a teen at risk, a child suffering from crippling fear issues, soldiers from PTSD, women survivors of domestic battery, folks with disabilities, and people coping with substance abuse and dependence, it’s the horses that are opening the doors to wellness. The equine “helpers” are assisting therapists and counselors in getting patients to connect, making them more susceptible to treatment. Of course, being in nature and a beautiful environment such as this facility in Maryland doesn’t hurt either!
“When most people think of drug addiction therapy, they think of cognitive behavioral therapy and role-playing. In general, the phrase “drug therapy” suggests interaction with a counselor; it doesn’t necessarily imply animals, specifically equine therapy. At Maryland Recovery, counselors and therapists are finding equine therapy to be very helpful in the treatment and recovery of many alcoholism cases. Animal therapy is not a new concept. Therapy dogs, cats, and other animals visit hospitals every day to help people recover. People with disabilities rely on service animals like dogs, even miniature horses and capuchin monkeys. However, some people are skeptical of animal therapy for addicts. They question whether an addict will harm the animal in question or if methods like equine therapy reward undesirable behavior. Equine therapy is not a reward, but a teaching tool. Horses and equine therapists can help teach those dependent on alcohol new responsibility – responsibility that may help them refocus. Equine therapy helps alcoholics develop new, healthier coping mechanisms and self-regulation.
Equine therapy involves much more than petting or riding a horse. In true equine therapy, alcoholics and other addicts build relationships with their horses. They care for the horses and their environments, performing barn chores – stall mucking, feeding, and grooming. Additionally, the horse becomes a nonjudgmental ear to help alcoholics confront and discuss their addictions and the consequences of them. Unlike people, horses do not rush to respond or ask questions, so the addict is less likely to feel judged.
Despite misconceptions, equine therapy is not the linchpin of addiction treatment. It is a supplement to other therapies and programs, such as a 12-step program or traditional cognitive behavioral therapy. In other cases, activities like trail riding are part of regaining physical health, especially in residential treatment. Connecting with the horse and riding in nature provides a calming and medicinal effect for a lot of recovering addicts.
Equine therapy sessions usually happen in groups, although individual sessions can happen on an as-needed basis. A counselor or other clinician with certification in animal therapy leads the group. Together, the group works on horse care skills such as feeding and grooming, and some may even train the horse as well. Often, riding is part of a session. These physical skills help addicts regain their health, which alleviates symptoms like muscle cramps and atrophy, headaches, or body temperature changes.
Additionally, the physical side of equine therapy helps an alcoholic focus on a productive task. Alcoholics use drinking as a primary leisure activity. As a result, they lose interest in former favorite activities and are often unable to picture leisure time without drinking. Although equine care is difficult, many alcoholics find it becomes pleasurable. This sets them up to rediscover old hobbies and find new ones, gradually redefining what it means to relax and find enjoyment. During equine therapy, alcoholics also build cognitive and interpersonal skills. Horses are kind and personable animals that give genuine feedback. Many people struggling with addiction crave kindness after long periods of negative attention for addictive behavior. They also crave honest feedback, as many times, their loved ones have withheld from them their true emotions – either about the difficulty they face during the addict’s time with them or the chances of reconciliation. Alcoholics themselves have learned to hide their addictions and corresponding behaviors. Horses don’t lie or hide anything, so alcoholics can relearn how to have honest interactions.
Unlike people, horses do not enable negative actions. Sometimes a horse won’t cooperate with what an alcoholic wants it to do during therapy. When that happens, it becomes the person’s responsibility to figure out why and change his or her behavior. The alcoholic can’t blame the horse; the animal doesn’t know it isn’t cooperating, because it cannot speak to or reason with people. Thus, the focus of an equine therapy relationship is in building trust rather than manipulating, lying, or using force to achieve desired behavior.
Equine therapy challenges alcoholics to deal with difficult situations. No one “reads” a horse perfectly the first time. The frustration or anger an alcoholic feels when making a mistake might be overwhelming. In time, however, he or she will learn to deal with frustration constructively. The alcoholic learns to say, “Okay, that’s one way that didn’t work. What can I try next?” He or she can transfer this approach to life outside equine therapy or a treatment facility, which increases the chance of long-term sobriety. Many alcoholics find offices and other traditional therapy settings intimidating. However, the outdoor setting of equine therapy encourages them to open up more. The presence of a certified therapist ensures the environment is controlled, and neither the humans nor animals feel threatened. Thus, the alcoholic doesn’t have to concentrate on weighing his or her words or avoiding reactions from peers. When the alcoholic gives the horse what it needs, he or she receives instant positive reinforcement. Gradually, he or she comes to expect positive reinforcement from people and is more able to give it in return.
Alcoholics drink to deal with anxiety, anger, depression, and several other negative emotions. Equine therapy helps them process these emotions healthfully, psychologically as well as physically. Working with horses releases endorphins, which increases positive emotions. Endorphins also help balance mood-regulating hormones. This alleviates some of the withdrawal’s psychological symptoms and keeps alcoholics from drinking to cope.
Research shows that as little as five minutes of interaction with a horse releases endorphins, serotonin, and other “feel good” bodily chemicals. Over time, an alcoholic learns he or she would rather get these feelings from equine therapy and associated relationships than a bottle. He or she will also find the release of these substances no longer comes with backlash as it did during alcoholism.
Equine therapy is not for everyone, but a great number of alcoholics have found it beneficial. You might consider it if you’ve worked with animals before, had pets growing up, or have a particular interest in horses. Even if not, your doctor and other clinicians may recommend it as a way to stretch and challenge yourself. In conjunction with traditional therapy, equine therapy increases your chances of long-term sobriety and healthy relationships with animals and people.
If you are interested in learning more about equine and other therapy, contact us. In addition, contact us if you have an alcohol dependency or other addiction. Together, we will determine if equine therapy can help you.”
Be well, Maryland Recovery