Traditional addiction treatment often involves medical detoxification, rehabilitation and group and individual therapy. It can occur in places such as a hospital, an addiction treatment center or a doctor’s office, and it can last anywhere from a few days to several months. Although several aspects of addiction treatment are variable, each treatment’s focus is the same: helping the patient rehabilitate from the addiction so that he can lead a productive and drug-free life.
One recent form of therapy that helps people reach these goals is called equine therapy, sometimes called equine-assisted psychotherapy. This type of therapy falls under a branch of therapies called Animal-Assisted Therapy, in which a person interacts with an animal, such as a cat or a dog, in order to work through some of the psychological and emotional issues that he might not otherwise be able to address in traditional therapy. In equine therapy, the person regularly interacts with horses over a period of time.
While equine therapy is a fairly recent development in treatment for psychological issues, studies suggest that it can be very beneficial. One study in 2008, which looked at the effects of a 12-week program of Animal-Assisted Therapy on people receiving treatment for various issues such as anxiety, schizophrenia, affective disorders, and personality disorders, found that people who engage in equine therapy reported higher levels of self-esteem and coping ability.
This study used both horses and other farm animals, including cows, sheep, chickens, and rabbits. It indicates that Animal-Assisted Therapy, especially that which includes horses, when used in combination with other forms of therapy, can significantly improve a person’s self-esteem and ability to deal with difficult situations. Since substance addiction is classified as a mental health disorder, and since many people who struggle with addictions also suffer from another mental issue, this study suggests that Animal-Assisted Therapy can be useful to people undergoing addiction treatment.
Equine therapy focuses on teaching people how to interact with horses. Since horses are pack animals, they are able to sense and respond to other creatures’ feelings. Specifically, they are able to detect when a person feels scared, angry, happy, sad, or nervous. Margarita Tartakovsky explains that equine therapy can be useful to people going through addiction treatment because it offers them the following:
- Immediate feedback: because horses can sense a person’s feelings and respond accordingly, they can serve as a mirror that the person can use to see and understand feelings they may not be aware of.
- Opportunities for learning: the person can use his interactions with the horses to evaluate and modify the ways he interacts with people. The therapist can also use the horses as a way to open conversation about the person’s addiction and any other psychological or social issues.
- Opportunities for trust-building: a person who feels uncomfortable talking in a traditional therapy setting, or who hasn’t developed a trusting relationship with his therapist might find equine therapy to be a safe environment where he can open up and develop trust, both between himself and the horses and between himself and his therapist.
- Healthy relationships: horses offer the person a non-judging relationship, which can help a person struggling with the negative relationship consequences from his addiction to rebuild his confidence without fear of criticism.