Equine Therapy for Addiction

It’s no secret that interacting with animals can help to lift your mood and benefit your life in many ways.

As a result, animals such as cats, dogs and horses are being used as part of addiction treatment at rehab.

Continue reading to learn more about the practice of equine therapy as well as the benefits and skills that you will develop as a result of this treatment.

What is equine therapy for addiction?

Woman on horse in wheat field

Equine therapy is a form of therapy that you may experience during your addiction treatment.

It is a holistic therapy, meaning that it aims to treat the mind, body and soul instead of merely targeting the addiction.

Many animals can be used as part of the therapy process, but equine therapy for addiction specifically involves horses.

Alongside a trained and experienced equine therapist, you will feed, groom and perform activities with a horse as part of your therapy sessions.

You will usually experience equine therapy as part of a small group involving other patients.

You may share a horse with one or more people or you may be assigned your own horse.

In most cases, you will not ride the horse during sessions although some equine therapy sessions do involve riding if you wish.

As a result, you do not need to have any prior experience with horses to be able to participate in equine therapy. [1]

Most sessions involve a task or challenge that you will need to overcome. Afterwards, you can share your thoughts and feelings with the group and/or your therapist.

You can experience many benefits from equine therapy for addiction, which will be discussed further in this article.

What happens during an equine therapy session?

A hand out stretched to a horse's mouth

It’s normal to feel hesitant about attending equine therapy for addiction, particularly if you have little to no experience in working with horses.

Learning more about what to expect from equine therapy sessions can help you to feel more prepared and confident.

The first thing to remember is that you will always be assisted by a specially-trained therapist who will observe and monitor you at all times.

Most equine therapy sessions involve groups, so you will be attending alongside other patients.

During equine therapy for addiction, you will usually begin each lesson by grooming the horse.

This helps you and the horse to feel connected and comfortable with each other while also helping to build trust.

You may be asked to carry out several tasks throughout the course of an equine therapy session, and these may include the following:

  • Leading the horse around by the reins or a lead, in order to give it adequate exercise
  • Cleaning up after the horse and ensuring the environment remains tidy and hygienic
  • Organising and preparing nutritional food for the horse
  • Brushing and grooming the horse
  • Placing a halter and/or saddle on the horse
  • Creating an obstacle for the horse to jump over
  • Riding the horse
  • Cleaning the horse’s hooves
  • Braiding the horse’s mane and/or tail

You will be encouraged to speak about how you are feeling throughout the therapy session, often attempting to see your actions through the horse’s eyes.

The safety of you and the horse is of utmost importance during equine therapy, so you can rest assured that you will be in safe hands.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

What is the goal of equine therapy for addiction?

A woman with her face affectionately against a horse

Equine therapy for addiction is primarily used to complement a traditional form of therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy or dialectical behaviour therapy.

Therefore, the goal of equine therapy may not necessarily be to cure the addiction itself.

Instead, it is used to strengthen and develop certain skills that can then be applied to addiction recovery through other forms of therapy.

These skills include verbal and non-verbal communication, setting boundaries and surrendering to a lack of control.

At first, the goal of equine therapy will simply be to get you feeling comfortable around horses and provide the knowledge required to safely and effectively interact with them.

Once this has been accomplished, you will learn to develop the patience and flexibility required to build a healthy relationship with your horse.

Many people with addictions struggle with responsibility and often attempt to avoid it altogether.

Equine therapy is a chance to become more responsible and even potentially enjoy being responsible for another living being, which is an extremely helpful tool in addiction recovery.

Is equine therapy right for me?

A teen looking downEquine therapy for addiction can be an effective part of your treatment programme.

This can be particularly helpful when combined with another more traditional form of therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). [2]

You don’t need to have any experience with horses, and you do not need to know how to ride.

In fact, many forms of equine therapy do not involve riding the horse at all – instead, you will focus on taking care of the horse and leading it around.

Equine therapy can even be effective for those who are afraid of horses, as you will gradually build up your confidence in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

If you have other underlying issues such as autism or a mental health disorder, equine therapy can be particularly soothing and effective.

If you would like to work on your confidence levels and life skills while trying something new during rehab, look into equine therapy for addiction and take a step outside your comfort zone.

How can I access equine therapy for addiction?

A person using a phone and laptop

As equine therapy for addiction requires a large amount of space as well as a significant financial investment, not every rehab clinic will be able to provide this form of treatment.

However, there are many clinics across the UK that do offer equine therapy as part of their treatment programmes.

If you are planning to attend equine therapy as a private patient, it may be helpful to research the various available clinics and ask for recommendations from friends, family and medical professionals.

If you will be attending equine therapy as part of a rehab treatment programme, speak to your doctor or a local drug and alcohol support team. They may be able to refer you to an appropriate clinic.

For those who are fortunate enough to live close to a clinic that provides equine therapy, you may be able to attend as an outpatient depending on the severity of your addiction.

If there are no clinics nearby, we recommend looking into the possibility of attending as an inpatient as part of a residential programme.

In some areas of the UK, equine therapy is available on the NHS which means you will not need to pay for this treatment.

Speak to your doctor to see whether you are able to access this form of therapy on the NHS.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

Which addictions can equine therapy help with?

Man attaching a horse's bridle while it drinks

Traditional addiction treatment usually involves a combination of detox, counselling, relapse prevention and aftercare.

These scientifically-backed treatments have been found to be extremely effective at helping people to recover from addiction, but more holistic alternatives are also becoming popular across the UK.

Equine therapy is one of these, and this form of therapy is being used to treat various types of addiction alongside more traditional methods.

Below are just some of the types of addiction that equine therapy can help with:

  • Alcohol addiction
  • Heroin addiction
  • Cocaine addiction
  • Benzodiazepine addiction
  • Cannabis addiction
  • Prescription painkiller addiction
  • Ecstasy addiction
  • Crack cocaine addiction
  • Hallucinogen addiction
  • Amphetamine addiction
  • Inhalant addiction
  • Gambling addiction
  • Exercise addiction
  • Shopping addiction

If you are struggling with one of the above addictions, or have another issue that is not listed, contact our team at Rehab 4 Alcoholism on 0800 111 4108 for advice and a free initial assessment.

History of equine therapy for addiction

A person stroking a horse with one hand on the reins, leading

You may believe that equine therapy is a relatively new form of addiction treatment.

However, horses have been used as far back as 600 B.C to relieve feelings of stress and to aid in relaxation.

It is said that a Lydian named Orbasis wrote about the therapeutic benefits of horse riding during Ancient Greek times.

Throughout the 17th century, equine therapy was documented as an effective tool for treating gout, low morale and various neurological disorders.

It wasn’t until 1946, however, that equine therapy was officially used in Europe to promote healing.

By 1960, equine therapy began to gain popularity in the US and Canada as people saw how much this treatment benefited the physical and mental health of the disabled.

It eventually began to branch off into different forms of therapy, with equine-assisted psychotherapy becoming associated with addiction treatment.

Now, this form of therapy has spread across the world and is commonly used to complement addiction treatment.

Why are horses used in addiction therapy?

Four brown horses in a large grassy field

We have been working with horses for thousands of years, using them as a means of transport and a way to carry heavy loads.

They’re also useful in addiction therapy. But what is it about horses that makes them ideal for this task?

Many people find that horses have a calming and soothing presence.

We need to move slowly and gently around them so as not to startle them, which promotes mindfulness and more grounding energy.

As horses are prey animals, they rely on body language and mirroring that of others.

A lot of our communication is through non-verbal means such as body language, and horses are naturally adept at reflecting our emotions back at us.

Have you ever been nervous or jumpy around a horse? You may have noticed that the horse sensed your feelings and either responded in a soothing way or became challenging and difficult to manage.

This can help us to become more aware of our thoughts and behaviours and can allow us to recognise when our emotions may be hindering us.

Horses are non-judgmental and will listen silently to your worries, and many people who try out equine therapy may begin talking quietly to their horses during the session.

Being around a calm and gentle animal often causes us to reflect similar behaviours, and over time we are able to replicate this even without the horse being present.

Which types of horses are used in equine therapy for addiction?

A brown and tan horse's head and neck. Cloud cover behind

Selecting and breeding horses with the ideal temperament is crucial for effective equine therapy, and this can be more difficult than it first appears.

Any breed of horse can be used for equine therapy as long as they are calm, gentle and patient.

They should also be well-trained, both while being ridden and being led.

As many people receiving equine therapy have little to no experience with horses, it is important that the horses used are not skittish or temperamental.

Older horses are often used for equine therapy as they are naturally slower and less easily startled than young horses, although young horses are still commonly used as long as they possess the above traits.

They must also be in good health with no noticeable health issues, as they may be used frequently depending on the therapy schedule and should not be at risk of burnout at any time.

Of course, each horse will have its own personality with specific likes and dislikes.

As long as the horse is receptive to training and is quick to understand commands, most gentle and calm horses will be able to be used for equine therapy.

Here at Rehab 4 Alcoholism, we offer free advice from a team of non-judgemental professionals, many of whom are in recovery and understand how hard can be to change your relationship with addiction.

Simply reach out to our 24/7, confidential hotline on 0800 111 4108.

What skills can equine therapy for addiction teach?

You may imagine that you will develop new riding skills during equine therapy and will be able to impress others with your newfound equestrian knowledge.

In reality, the skills you develop through equine therapy cannot be seen with the naked eye. They will instead reflect in your behaviours, thoughts and actions.

Below are just some of the skills that equine therapy for addiction can teach:

1. Effective communication skills

It can sometimes be difficult to communicate and engage with other people, and it’s normal to have trouble with this.

We communicate with our words and body language, both to humans and other animals.

The way you communicate with your horse will often be similar to the way you communicate with other people, and this can raise your awareness of how and why you should improve your communication skills.

Horses cannot understand our words, and therefore we must use non-verbal cues and body language to communicate with them which can also be useful when engaging with other people.

2. Confidence and self-belief

Two women brushing and holding a horse

Many people feel nervous around large horses, particularly if they are not used to interacting with them.

By pushing through that fear and gradually feeling safe around your horse, your confidence levels will increase and you will begin to believe that you are capable of overcoming other fears.

You will also learn that you can trust both yourself and others during this process and that just because something seems intimidating doesn’t mean that it is impossible.

3. Leadership

If you are not assertive with a horse, it will act of its own free will and see just how far it can push the boundaries.

Most horses are primed to seek food, while an equine therapy session usually involves grooming and leading a horse.

If you do not effectively impose your own will upon the horse, it may be difficult to complete these tasks.

Equine therapy can teach you how to display leadership skills and become more assertive by placing you with an animal that will challenge you to do so.

4. Mindfulness and being present

A horse in a stable, its breath visible on a chilly day

A horse lives in the here and now. It does not regret its actions in the past or worry about the future. It simply focuses on the present and its current environment.

By spending time around horses, you can learn to do the same. This is known as mindfulness and involves being present in the moment.

If you let your mind wander while taking care of a horse, they will often do something to being you back down to earth.

This can help you remain in the present moment and focus on your current actions.

5. Setting boundaries

Many people struggling with addiction have difficulty setting boundaries, both with themselves and with other people.

In order to have healthy relationships, reasonable boundaries must be set on both sides.

You are not being selfish or cruel when you set boundaries – instead, you are safeguarding both yourself and the relationship.

To successfully manage a horse during equine therapy, you will be required to set boundaries with it which can open up the possibility of doing the same with other people.

6. Managing your emotions

A man in a field in golden hour sunlight

As horses are prey animals, they are extremely alert to body language and small non-verbal signs.

This means that they are aware when you feel nervous, upset or angry and will respond accordingly.

To keep your horse calm and relaxed, you will need to learn how to manage your emotions.

This does not mean ignoring or burying your feelings, but rather working through them in a healthy way so that both your thoughts and actions are more grounded rather than purely emotional.

7. Being honest and authentic

Following their instincts and presenting as exactly who they are have always been natural behaviours for horses, who do not know how to be inauthentic.

They will always let you know how they feel about you – if you make them nervous, they will show this. If they like you, they will let you know.

It’s important to be authentic around horses, as they can sense if you are acting in a way that does not reflect your true feelings and respond accordingly.

8. Accepting a lack of control

As a horse is a living animal with its own desires and thoughts, you will never gain complete control over it.

Things may not always go to plan when working with horses, and learning to accept this lack of control can help you to become more flexible in your everyday life.

In some ways, you will need to be vulnerable with your horse and understand that even if things don’t go your way in the moment, everything will be okay in the end.

What are the benefits of equine therapy for addiction?

A man smiling in an overgrown meadow

Many of the benefits of equine therapy for addiction are reflected in the newfound skills listed above including better communication skills, improved self-confidence and the ability to manage your emotions.

The majority of people who experience equine therapy report feeling calmer and more able to deal with the stresses of life, as well as an increased motivation to recover.

Addiction and substance use is often a way for people to self-medicate and avoid the often painful emotions and memories inside themselves.

Equine therapy for addiction helps us to release these feelings in a healthy way, leaving us better equipped to tackle the physical aspects of the addiction.

What is the evidence for equine therapy for addiction?

A man and woman by the sea, smiling and looking at a camera screen

As equine therapy for addiction is less widely studied than other forms of therapy, it can be easy for some people to dismiss it.

However, there are studies that prove just how effective equine therapy for addiction really is.

One study took an in-depth look at the impact of equine therapy on substance abuse patients, and the results showed a clear positive effect.

Patients reported being more motivated to continue with their addiction treatment after engaging in equine therapy, as they found it to be an enjoyable part of the programme. [3]

They were also able to look ahead to the end of the stay at rehab in a more positive light, as being so engaged with the horses kept their minds free from any thoughts of drugs.

This made it seem more possible that one day they could eventually recover. [3]

Other patients spoke of being able to discover and share their real personalities when working with horses, instead of feeling as though they had to be inauthentic.

They were focused on the animals and stable environment and therefore were able to speak with staff in a more relaxed manner. [3]

Equine therapy also improved morale, as patients felt as though they were working and doing something useful.

This increased their confidence and self-esteem and potentially helped them to identify interests and passions to build a career from. [3]

Of course, more studies are needed to determine the true evidence behind equine therapy for addiction, but this single study highlighted many of the benefits of this form of treatment.

Two women smiling close to a horse


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6917924/

[2] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344678036_Can_Animal-assisted_Therapy_Aid_Recovery_from_Alcohol_and_Drug_Addiction_A_Brief_Review_of_the_Literature

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5054942/