Many people diagnosed with substance use disorder (SUD) benefit from animal-assisted therapies, including equine therapy. According to Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment, “There is increasing popularity for alternative or complementary health treatment methods, such as yoga, art, music, gardening, or animal-assisted therapy, for SUDs.” Exclusive Hawaii Rehab uses equine therapy combined with psychotherapy and other evidence-based treatments to help clients heal from the effects of substance abuse.

What Is Equine Therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy (EAT) is a form of horse-assisted therapy (HAT). EAT uses psychoanalysis, attachment theory, and other therapeutic techniques to help people overcome challenges related to recovery from substance abuse and co-occurring mental health disorders. According to Nurses Open, “The psychosocial effects of EAT include improved self‐esteem, self‐confidence, empowerment, a sense of self‐presence, and feelings of freedom, independence and competency.” People participating in EAT improve emotion regulation, confidence, and mindfulness by engaging with a horse and their therapist in a neutral setting.

Equine therapy is highly flexible and tailored to the needs and preferences of each client. No two sessions are the same. A few activities people often participate in during sessions include:

    • Connecting horse emotional response to physical behaviors

    • Riding, walking, or feeding the horse

    • Practicing emotion regulation

    • Caring for the horse in other ways, including grooming

Spending time with horses has a positive effect on mental and physical health. Individuals recovering from substance abuse can use equine therapy to discover new ways to achieve emotional stability.

How Does Equine Therapy Improve Treatment Outcomes?

Equine therapy allows people to look at triggers, behaviors, and emotions from a new perspective. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), “The difference between connecting with horses versus people is that it all depends on your actions rather than your words.” A therapist guides clients through the process of analyzing their feelings and behavioral responses while interacting with the horse. Parallels are often drawn between the horse and the client to increase self-awareness.

Equine therapy improves treatment outcomes by doing the following:

    • Reducing stress

    • Increasing self-confidence

    • Improving self-esteem

    • Reducing symptoms of anxiety or depression

    • Improving behavioral issues

Clients participating in equine therapy practice skills learned in group and individual therapy sessions, including mindfulness and grounding techniques. Interacting with a horse helps clients better understand the connection between their own behaviors and emotional reactions. Clients can identify how the horse responds to their actions and relate those responses to their own experiences.

Purposeful actions like riding or caring for a horse improve confidence and provide a sense of purpose or fulfillment. Horses accept attention and care without judgment. Individuals with low self-esteem or body image issues may benefit from interacting with horses in low-stress environments. According to Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, “In a therapeutic setting, horses are often perceived as non-judgemental, facilitating the human–horse connection. The horse’s congruency and its non-judgemental and motivational responses are valuable for building self-esteem, confidence, efficacy and mastery.”

Do You Need Experience With Horses to Benefit From EAT?

Some people may hesitate to take advantage of equine therapy due to misunderstandings and misinformation. For example, many people believe they must have experience with horses or other large animals to participate in EAT. However, anyone can benefit from EAT regardless of their level of experience with horses.

Some people may be afraid of riding horses. The care team gradually introduces clients to the animals to reduce any stress or anxiety. Horseback riding is not necessary to gain essential insights and develop skills. People of all skill levels can gain strength and inspiration from interacting with horses.

What Happens During a Therapy Session?

Therapy sessions are tailored to the needs and preferences of the client. Often, the client’s comfort level increases as they spend more time with the horse. Some people may feel more comfortable leading or caring for the horse instead of going for horseback rides. Clinicians ensure the client feels safe and comfortable throughout the session by checking in verbally and guiding the client through forming a positive bond with the horse.

Some of the most common low-stress activities people do with the horse during sessions include:

    • Feeding the horse directly or placing feed in their stall

    • Grooming

    • Leading

    • Riding

A therapist supervises each session and educates the client on interpreting the horse’s behaviors. According to Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, studies have shown that clients build a positive relationship with horses throughout treatment: “Many of the participants reported that bonding with the horses helped them develop trust . . . These bonds likely formed because participants perceived the horses as non-judgmental.” The activities people engage in during EAT sessions depend on their comfort level and symptoms.

What Are the Benefits of Equine Therapy?

Equine therapy helps people form healthy emotional connections and reflect on their own experiences in a healthy way. Some of the primary benefits of horse-assisted therapy include:

    • Decreased social anxiety

    • Improved mood regulation

    • Stronger mind-body connection

    • Reduced feelings of loneliness

    • Improved problem-solving skills

    • Development of nonverbal communication skills

Equine therapy is an experiential form of treatment. A therapist guides clients through identifying, analyzing, and processing issues related to recovery and mental health.

Complementary Treatments and Services at Exclusive Hawaii Rehab

Treatment programs at Exclusive Hawaii Rehab combine complementary services with evidence-based care to ensure the best possible outcomes. A whole-person approach to treatment allows people to better understand their condition while finding new ways to heal and grow. Psychotherapy and other traditional forms of treatment are often more effective when used alongside more holistic therapies, including EAT. Clients benefit from spending time around horses and learning to interact with them while gaining more significant insights into their behaviors and thought patterns. In addition, some people find spending time with horses relaxing and choose to continue EAT after completing treatment.