A frequent remedy for mental health issues is to be in a situation where you’re not being judged and you have the opportunity to express your true self. However, talk therapy may not initially be the best course of action for someone if he or she has difficulty accessing deep feelings with other people.
Animal-assisted therapy changes this dynamic: you have a chance to simply love and be loved. The interplay between you and your animal companion is one of pure spirit, as two beings find their way to each other. The animal senses your energy and emotions, and this may pose a challenge at first to connect.
The animal will also continue to exist in its own way, and there’s little you can do about this behavior. But each encounter allows you to overcome your fears, change your perceptions, and gain confidence by stepping into a caregiver role and doing what you can to put the animal at ease and understand its nature. As trust develops, the animal responds with an open heart. This connection helps guide you along your healing process.
For someone in recovery from substance abuse, learning to trust, share feelings, recognize a surety in the present moment, and make valuable connections are just a few benefits of animal interactive therapeutic treatments.
Equine Therapy for Healing
One of the most successful forms of this process is equine therapy. Mounting scientific and anecdotal evidence points to the success of this experiential therapy method: a more hands-on approach for working through negative thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences by doing enjoyable activities. For example:
- A study sponsored by the Animals and Society Institute revealed that individuals participating in equine-assisted therapy “reported significant improvements in psychological functioning immediately following [this therapy] program, and these changes were stable at a six-month follow-up.”
- In a 2018 report by CNN, equine therapy experts relayed information about its success with a number of individuals, including those with autism, chronic pain, PTSD, depression, and other conditions.
- Psychology Today referenced nearly 50 studies that indicate benefits from working with equine and other animals in therapeutic settings include emotion stabilization, improved socialization and communication skills, better self-regulation or impulse control, reduced depression and anxiety, realignment of stress responses while doing something pleasurable, and increased feelings of calm, comfort, and safety.
- Counseling Today shared an in-depth story of one equine therapist’s experiences helping children and teens with mental and behavioral issues.
A lot of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities use some type of equine therapy. As herd animals, horses frequently need to create bonds and form new relationships. If an individual in recovery has attachment or trust issues, working with a horse helps him or her acknowledge these circumstances, and learn to move beyond them in a healthful way.
Additionally, a horse’s innate hypersensitivity is the perfect mirror for someone’s verbal and nonverbal communication. Therapy experts believe the way a person interacts with a horse is an indicator of how he or she is with humans. This awareness can be a pivotal point to explore later in group or individual counseling.
Aspects of an Equine Therapy Session
There are usually three types of equine therapy programs:
- Therapeutic riding: Considered a recreational activity guided by a non-therapist instructor who helps someone learn to control a horse while riding. Often used with people to build self-confidence and work on communication skills.
- Hippotherapy: Incorporating the expertise of physical or occupational therapists, language and speech pathologists, or recreation therapists, this practice uses a horse’s movements to help a rider improve sensorimotor systems, balance, coordination, and other aspects of movement. Frequently a course of treatment for people with cerebral palsy, autism, or brain damage.
- Experiential interactivity: Although sometimes riding is a component, most engagement is conducted through ground exercises such as grooming, massaging, leading the horse in a training circle, and a variety of human/horse activities that may be metaphors for what a person is feeling or experiencing. This is the most common method used at drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers.
What people learn during experiential equine therapy for substance abuse treatment may include:
- Evaluating addiction and its impact
- Addressing trauma-sensitive issues
- Improving self-esteem and confidence
- Using grounding methods to help manage triggers, depression, and anxiety
- Establishing better relationships and defining necessary boundaries
- Trying mindfulness and other stress-relieving or coping techniques
What’s more, individuals learn that other creatures suffer, too—and that it’s within their ability to ease their pain and help them recover. The award-winning documentary Buck follows the life and experiences of trainer Buck Brannaman and how his humanity, vulnerability, and compassion helped him find new purpose, overcome past trauma, and change the lives of hundreds of horses. Watch the captivating movie trailer here.
Cottonwood Tucson’s Equine Program
As part of our holistic recovery services, we offer equine-assisted therapy as a means to help an individual develop a better sense of feeling alive in the present moment, and to regain peace and connectivity.
The horses in our therapy team are retired from previous careers, and demonstrate the importance of second chances. Each relationship between horse and human starts on the ground with various activities and exercises to foster trust and communication. A horse can easily detect human emotions, and provide biofeedback to help people establish new ways of understanding their behaviors, perspectives, feelings, and beliefs.
By Tracey L. Kelley