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equine therapyThere’s something about the sight of horses munching hay. Stand there for a few minutes, and you may forget why you walked into the barn in the first place. You may have gone in there to get work done. A saddle needs slinging back onto its rack, or a harness needs hanging. But there is something about horses that puts whatever you have on your mind in check. That slow, concentrated tugging at the hay net, followed by the occasional satisfied snort, pulls you in, makes you stop. Makes you breathe. Makes you relax. Makes you be in the moment instead of standing there with only one foot into the experience because you’re thinking about the next thing.

In other words, it helps you forget.

For this reason, equine-assisted therapy is widely becoming an accepted form of treatment for anyone dealing with issues ranging from PTSD, substance misuse, and depression.

What is Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy is nothing new. For many years, horses have performed essential physical therapy roles for children and adults experiencing ability and physical challenges. In this context, horses help their riders achieve balance, coordination, and self-help skills that translate into improvements in daily motor skills over a short period. Over time, caregivers and other professionals often report increased self-confidence, noting how riders seem to improve their overall outlook in the presence of horses.

Partnering with correctional facilities, horses have helped young offenders gain greater emotional control, establish empathy skills, and learn responsibility for their actions in ways standard rehabilitative counseling has failed to reach.

More recently, equine-assisted therapy has gained greater exposure through therapeutic work with former military members dealing with trauma. These battlefield traumas have included PTSD and moral injury stemming from acts or witnessing acts that harm the person’s sense of self and moral code.

Working closely with a licensed mental health professional certified in equine therapy, clients participate in activities such as the general care and maintenance of a horse assigned to them.  These activities include grooming, appropriate feeding, and leading a horse to and from a pasture. The nature of these activities helps establish not only routine but also accountability.  Having another creature that relies on us can be a useful integrative teaching tool. The importance of reliability is vastly different from an actual experiential learning experience. Additionally, the positive consequences of establishing a bond between horse and client offer a tangible benefit for someone struggling through low self-esteem issues. 

Equine therapy takes place in an outdoor setting. This treatment may provide additional support to any sensory challenges, including removing what might be perceived as a more formal indoor counseling session. A less formal or casual setting may open conversation following a positive trigger that might be reminiscent of a happy memory before a life-changing event.

What Equine Therapy is Not

While equine therapy involves working with horses in a barn setting, it is not a learn to ride program culminating in a ribbon for all event at the end of a prescribed time frame. While riding may be part of a program, many participants will perform simple tasks related to the horse’s care and welfare while supported by a trained equine therapy specialist.

The emphasis should always be on rebuilding aspects of the self, including self-esteem, developing control over feelings of anger and aggression, and learning to establish routine and healthy habits.  

Can Equine Therapy Work for Me?

Anyone allergic to horses, dust from shavings, hay or straw, or has a genuine fear/dislike of horses, then an equine-assisted therapy program may not be a good fit. That said, if you wish to work through fear as part of your recovery program, then talking with your support counselor may be an excellent place to start.

Assuming you comply with your detoxification program, it is essential to consider your overall health concerning working with horses’ physical requirements. Depending on the program, you may be expected to bend, lift, and stand for an hour or more. If in doubt, talk to your therapist and medical practitioner.

Horses may be a great fit at helping you and your therapist work into your recovery goals, such as:

  • Creating a Judgment Free Zone. For starters, horses, like most animals, don’t care who you are, where you have been, or what you have done. Unloading that invisible backpack filled with shame, guilt, and other emotions can be difficult when trying to start over. Horses don’t see that. All they care about is your emotion at the moment: that, and a treat.  Horses love treats, and your treat-laden outstretched hand, no matter what substance it held yesterday, is as right as anyone else’s today. This builds trust. You are worthy, you are liked, and you are lovable.
  • Creating a Give and Take Relationship. Physically sensitive and emotionally observant, horses help their clients develop self-awareness and understanding. If you are dealing with a bad day, their keen sense will pick up on this and interact accordingly. Conversely, if you are not willing to trust or believe in yourself, an equine companion will wonder why they should trust you and may remain indifferent for a while. This makes for a great two way, give and take relationship. This also builds trust. You can do this, you can accomplish something, and you are capable.
  • Helping Become Vulnerable. Horses can manage our vulnerable side. When we struggle to find the words to open up and communicate with our human therapist, we might find it easier to reference our equine companion instead. When we externalize, it can make a painful experience easier to work through. You may have witnessed your horse experience a farrier visit, or you may catch your equine companion deal with a hierarchy situation within the herd. Observing those coping moments can provide a means with which to project personal experiences to your support counselor. Frequent interactions with horses during equine therapy may help you develop a sense of trust and safety as you rebuild human relationships. Finally, this builds trust within ourselves as we realize we can open up and communicate without fear of judgment and ridicule.

Addiction Specific Recovery

Equine-assisted therapy may offer an alternative to more traditional talk-therapies. Of course, the goal of addiction treatment is to help you live a sober, healthy life. However, damage caused by unhealthy family relationships and past abuses may complicate these goals. Exploring ways to trust, be vulnerable, and communicate constructively may be difficult during this time.

Increased social awareness, impulse control, distress tolerance, and self-esteem are just some of the many equine therapy outcomes or therapy with horses. Lifestyles, during addiction, can present as chaotic and without a clear sense of established routine. Horses need a routine to thrive. Horses can help re-establish positive behavior patterns, accountability, and follow-through during recovery stages in an appropriate context. During routine feedings and brushing during which new activities may be tried, stepping beyond your old comfort zone may lead to new insights and personal victories. The Guest House provides residential and outpatient programs to treat all forms of addiction, trauma, and other mental health issues. Learn how to grow beyond your addiction and live a life of wellness and recovery while enjoying all that the heart of Florida’s Ocala National Forest has to offer. Individualized treatment options include equine therapy, psychodrama, meditation, art, music, and group support. The Guest House Ocala prides itself on providing a holistic and supportive approach to long term wellness and support.  Tired of waiting to live the life you deserve? Call Guest House now at (855) 483-7800. Our staff looks forward to meeting you.