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These days, we tend to think of coming into contact with horses as a luxury for the well-heeled.
Yet, horses have always been working animals. They were essential for agriculture; they were a precursor to the car and now here they are helping us face our 21st century problems. That is to say, they’re fast becoming an integral element of treatment for those who seek assistance for their mental health difficulties, including addiction, depression, PTSD and anxiety.
This kind of therapy has its sceptics, because how can a horse possibly heal you? Well, the truth is, there are a great number of benefits to be had if you keep an open mind.
Equine therapy has been used to treat people with a range of mental health disorders such as ADHD, eating disorders, PTSD, depression and anxiety.
It’s also known to help people build confidence, improve relationships and overcome their addictions.
The truth is that being around a horse won’t magically make your addition disappear, but it’s not supposed to.
Removing access to the addictive substance is only part of the puzzle.
The time you spend with the horse is helping you navigate underlying problems that can lead to addictive behaviours.
People often develop additions because there is something else going on in their lives, and alcohol and drugs are used as coping mechanisms.
For example, people nervous about a big party might resort to a little Dutch courage. If this becomes the norm, then social anxiety might be the cause you need to treat as well as alcoholism.
As you begin to get to know the horse, you’ll naturally improve in areas that have held you back in life.
Equine therapy is one way to hone your social skills and ability to relate to those you love.
We humans are heavily reliant on verbal skills to get our message across, so we get lazy when it comes to non-verbal communication.
Horses don’t have this problem. They can read your body language and react to it appropriately.
While people will tolerate aggressive gestures and will mask their feelings, horses will run away.
If you want the horse to let you near it and stroke it, you need to be able to get it on your side. This means that you have to soften your approach, be gentle, calm and clear-headed and get rid of any negative emotions.
Since those in therapy naturally want to build a bond with these beautiful creatures, they begin to relinquish some of the negativity they’re holding onto.
This can be a truly cathartic experience and one which continues into life after therapy.
If you’re not so good at talking about your feelings or sharing your deepest self, then finding a sense of companionship with an animal is a great way to open the channels of communication.
On the other hand, talking person to person can feel intense. Finding the right words, sensing disapproval and feeling like you’re a let-down to others can all get in the way of your ability to conduct healthy conversations.
With animals, that pressure simply doesn’t exist. Horses are empathic and non-judgemental.
It may seem unusual talking to animals, but once you get over your inhibitions, you’ll find it easier and easier.
The therapist is there to help you debrief your session with the horse and discuss any feelings that come up as a result.
As well as getting you to express yourself and modify how you come across in your non-verbal behaviours, horse therapy offers a range of additional benefits:
It makes you feel okay with changing situations: Since horses are living creatures, their behaviours and responses change from day to day. Seeing this and learning how to respond helps you cope with other life changes.
You become more patient: Because you can’t expect a horse to like you straight away, you need to take your time and go at the horse’s pace. This means getting away from instant gratification and instead reaping the rewards of something you’ve taken time to earn i.e., the horse’s trust.
Love and self-esteem: Addiction comes with a whole raft of accompanying negative emotions including guilt, shame, a sense of hopelessness and eroded confidence. This means you move away from relationships out of fear. When you finally develop a friendship with the horse, you begin to recover a sense of self-worth.
More resilience: A lack of resilience can make a person relapse when life throws a curveball. Building up your internal reserves makes you stronger in the face of adversity and less likely to fall back into old comforts to feel better.
You feel more assertive: Leading a horse means you have to be bold and deliberate in your actions. Once you know you can control a horse, you can take this confidence into other situations.
A sense of mindfulness: Mental health concerns can have us worrying over the past and the future, meaning we forget how to enjoy the present. During your time with the horse, you’re fully immersed in the here and now.
You control your impulses better: Since you have to be conscious of your own actions around the horse, you can’t simply react to a situation automatically. This conscientious behaviour can come into play if temptation strikes, giving you more control over how you respond.
Are there any physical benefits to equine therapy?
Spending time in physical contact with horses has been shown to lower blood pressure. It also has a positive impact on your heart rate, helping you feel a little calmer.
It’s also outside, which provides a good source of fresh air, and it involves movement: it’s hard to do equine therapy from a couch.
Is equine therapy the only treatment you need for addiction?
Equine therapy works alongside other treatments – It’s one of a range to help heal all aspects of a person.
There are a plethora of great advantages to this form of animal-assisted therapy and it should be taken very seriously as a treatment for addiction.
While it is only one part of the jigsaw for addicts, the benefits it offers can solve many other problems in your life – The kind that exacerbates reliance on a substance. For example, communication difficulties, relationship breakdowns, social anxiety and lack of confidence. In improving your skills in these areas, a person can control their addiction more and more.
If playing with cats and dogs brings people love and joy in abundance, imagine how much more your confidence will grow when you get a giant beast to respond to you and respect you? Traditional talking therapies are unlikely to elicit such elation, and that’s why it’s a great accompaniment to other addiction therapies.