The surprising insights addicts develop while working with a 1,000-pound animal are just one example of the transformative power of working with horses. Through Equine Therapy, patients build close relationships with horses that translate into better relationship skills and greater understanding of personal motivations.
Equine Therapy involves a patient, a trained horse and a licensed therapist going through pre-defined tasks. While the process is challenging, it gives patients the ability to interact with another being that is non-judgmental. Work with horses encourages patients to be honest and respectful – skills they can use with humans as well.
Equine Therapy is just one of the individualized therapies offered at The Canyon. For many patients, working with horses is a vital piece of their path to sobriety.
Animals in Therapy: A Quick Definition
When people think of animals integrated into therapy programs, they may think of trained dogs that visit hospitals or nursing homes. This form of animal therapy is known as animal-assisted activity, and it’s been used by health care facilities for decades. In fact, the practice dates back to the 1700s, when some psychiatric facilities brought in animals to help patients feel calm and more relaxed. The founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale, even claimed birds in cages helped convalescent patients, because they offered the only opportunity the patients had to interact with an animal. By 1970, 48% of facilities used animals in their programs in some way. As acceptance of animals in health care grew through the decades, more people saw the potential of animal therapy to make a difference in the health of patients.
As use of animal therapy spread, medical professionals wondered if trained animals could do even more to help patients recover. Since it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of a meet-and-greet session on the physical and mental health of a patient, researchers looked for ways to quantify the impact of animals on humans. Medical professionals began using a type of intervention called animal-assisted therapy. Through assisted therapy, the animal works as a facilitator, in consultation with a licensed therapist. This process allows patients to improve core skills. For some patients, these skills are physical. They learn to snap on buckles, hold a harness or control a wriggling animal. For other patients, these skills are cognitive. Through working with an animal, the patient thinks about how her actions impact the animal and how the animal’s thoughts and feelings are known and understood. By measuring how well patients meet these goals, researchers see the impact of animal-assisted therapy.
Animal therapy helps patients reach a variety of goals, including:
- Improvement in memory
- Reduced anxiety
- Increased verbal interactions
- Improvement in motor skills
- Increased self-esteem
Animal therapists set up specific goals for a patient when therapy begins, and these goals are measured periodically, according to Pet Partners, one of the largest animal therapy non-profit agencies in the United States. Therapy goals are more specific than activity goals. While the aim of an animal activity is to spread joy and happiness (a vague goal that is hard to measure), the aim of animal therapy is to help a patient reach very specific and measurable goals.
Many studies show the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy. One study of 230 people assessed the patients’ mental health status both before and after a psychiatric session. Some worked with animals in the session, while others received a normal therapy session with no animals. Patients with mood disorders who worked with animals had lower anxiety scores after their sessions. Another group of patients with mood disorders who received normal therapy sessions did not improve their anxiety scores. For many, animals have the ability to reduce stress and anxiety and provide a meaningful form of help.
Specifics of Equine Therapy
Therapists who use Equine Therapy to reach patients build on the natural personalities and tendencies of the horse to teach patients lessons about social interactions and communication. Horses are stubborn creatures, willing to perform an action only if it seems to benefit them in some specific way. Also, a horse outweighs a human and is capable of injuring him. Therefore, it’s difficult to intimidate, bargain with, threaten or coerce a horse. Instead, people must deal with a horse using patience and a relaxed manner. Instructors may teach this lesson by asking patients to make the horse move outside of a circle without touching the horse at all. Patients who clap, yell or scream may see no movement at all, while patients who coax gently while standing beside the horse may see the action happen easily.
In addition, some horses are restless and nervous. They seem capable of reading a human’s inner thoughts, even though the horse doesn’t understand all of a person’s words. Many patients recovering from addiction keep their inner thoughts quiet and hidden. They soon discover horses know when they’re not being completely honest. This is a transformative moment in a horse training session, and such a lesson may not come in any other way.
Patients recovering from addiction also may be restless. They may feel uncomfortable and on guard when in a therapist’s office, unwilling to talk or communicate. By working with a horse, these people may find themselves opening up and talking for the very first time about their issues. In this way, animal therapy gives “health professionals an alternative method for reaching patients who are depressed or who have withdrawn from social intercourse,” according to a Health Marketing Quarterly article.Animal therapy offers a vector to reach withdrawn patients, and once the relationship between patient and therapist grows stronger, the therapy sessions are more effective.
Horses used in Equine Therapy are temperament trained, so they don’t pose a danger to humans. In addition, a human therapist is always present to guide the session. These therapists go through extensive training on horse movements and interactions. The risk of injury during a session is quite low, but all people are required to wear safety gear during a session, just to ensure that all participants remain safe.
Equine Assisted Therapy: Proven Benefits
Often, troubled people think one way and act in a completely different way. While they fool themselves, their true intentions come out in subtle body language.This body language is the language of horses. Patients quickly discover horses aren’t fooled, and when they think back to determine why, they realize the discrepancies between their thoughts and their actions. This realization is important in the context of addiction. A person struggling with cravings to use may seem distracted, angry or withdrawn. The person doesn’t realize, however, these emotions are visible to outsiders. The person may not know why they feel a certain way. If during a therapy session the horse does not respond, the therapist asks the patient to step back, look at her body position and think about what causes her body postures. If people learn to identify their thoughts in this way, they learn to control their substance cravings. Plus, they learn to know themselves better.
Research shows working with horses, or any animal, slows heart rate and increases feelings of well being and calm. For people who feel these sensations only while using drugs, it’s significant to discover such positive feelings without the use of substances. In addition, animals provide a sense of companionship and acceptance. Some people abuse drugs and alcohol due to negative experiences, such as:
- Mental illness
They want to discuss these topics but are unsure where to begin and how to broach the topic. A horse provides the perfect outlet. The horse does not ridicule the person, or talk about the issue with anyone else. Some people learn to communicate first by talking with a horse, and then talking to other humans. This is effective for many patients.
The lessons learned in an Equine Therapy program persist long after the formal sessions are complete. One study on Equine Therapy found improvements made during the therapy persisted at the six-month follow-up date. It’s clear Equine Therapy is an effective way to reach people, and help them build the skills they need to succeed. For more information on the types of therapies and programs available at The Canyon, please contact us today.
 Matuszek, Sarah. (2010). Animal‐Facilitated Therapy in Various Patient Populations: Systematic Literature Review. Holistic Nursing Practice. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016.
Giorgi, Anna Zernone. (2016). What is pet therapy? Healthline. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://www.healthline.com/health/pet-therapy#Overview1.
 Barker, Sandra B. and Dawson, Kathryn S. (1998). The Effects of Animal-Assisted Therapy on Anxiety Ratings of Hospitalized Psychiatric Patients. Psychiatric Services. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/ps.49.6.797.
 Tyler, Judith L. (2008). Equine Psychotherapy. Women & Therapy. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J015v15n03_11
 Klontz, Bradley; Bivens, Alex; Leinart, Deb and Klontz, Ted. (2007). The Effectiveness of Equine-Assisted Experiential Therapy: Results of an Open Clinical Trial. Society & Animals. Retrieved Dec. 12, 2016 from http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/journals/10.1163/156853007×217195.