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Equine Therapy in Addiction Treatment

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Animals help humans. Studies have shown that having one or more pets in a household can relieve anxiety, decrease stress, lessen the risk of heart attack, and help people cope. In addition to helping humans relax a little, companion animals work as service animals around the world.

Equine therapy is often an effective part of substance use treatment. As an experiential therapeutic approach, it seeks to bring together people and horses to create positive interactions in a therapeutic setting.

This article examines the concept of equine therapy for drug addiction treatment. How does it work? What is involved and how effective is it?

How Does Equine Therapy Work?

Equine therapy has been defined as a specialized form of psychotherapy using the horse as a therapeutic tool. Horses have several characteristics that are similar to humans in their behavioral responses and social structures, thus providing a mirror for the client to gain insight in a unique and non-threatening environment. The horse is a large, powerful animal that commands respect and elicits fear. Overcoming these obstacles and building a relationship promotes confidence, relationship skills, and problem-solving skills.

In equine therapy, trained therapists, who are also typically certified riding instructors, engage in training patients about horses and their care. Patients will learn about safety and how to handle specially trained therapy horses. Each session usually has an agreed-upon goal as part of an overarching therapeutic treatment plan.


The latest studies show that these interactions can:

  • Increase physical and spiritual wellbeing.
  • Help improve communication skills, confidence, and self-worth.
  • Create new, interesting experiences that boost confidence and morale.
  • Help with problem-solving and human interactions.

Horses, like dogs, cats, or other companion animals provide an outlet for compassion in a non-judgmental setting. A study in Substance Abuse: Research and Treatment suggest that four specific areas are targeted in this unusual but effective therapeutic approach:

  • Changing and refocusing the patient’s attention on something outside their own mindset.
  • Providing the physical activity as part of the therapeutic approach.
  • Helping establish the patient identity as worthwhile, responsible and accepted.
  • Motivating the patient to try new things.

The real benefits of equine therapy extend well beyond the interaction between humans and animals. The skills learned can help people struggling with substance use have more patience, try new things and for some, feel accepted as a person without negative stigmas tied to their addiction.

Horses are sensitive animals and respond to human emotions. Anger, frustration and fear all elicit an immediate response from a horse. Humans working with horses learn a calm centeredness approach to which the animal responds. Since horses are many times larger than a human, the person working within the equine therapy framework will learn more confidence as their work with these animals continues. Equine therapy naturally elicits a stable environment that requires complete control and focuses the attention. Working with horses, or any animal, in a therapeutic setting forces the person struggling with internal turmoil to focus outside his or her own head – if only for a little while.