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What is Equine Therapy and Does it Work for Addiction?

what is equine therapy

Let's get it straight: if you are new to addiction recovery, you are in for one of the most powerful emotional rollercoasters you could ever imagine.

One day you will feel great, whilst other days will be so difficult that you will even consider returning to drugs or alcohol. In fact, less than 10% of people new to recovery will succeed in never returning to drugs and alcohol again. 

Do not despair at this statistic. In fact, relapse is, for the most part, considered a natural consequence of being in recovery. Some have compared addiction to a chronic disorder like asthma. One key characteristic of a chronic disorder is relapse.

When you attend a drug and alcohol rehab clinic, you will be armed with a variety of skills that help you better process the emotional spikes that are common to recovery. 

Many of these techniques require assistance from another person. However, sometime you may not feel like communicating with another person for a variety of reasons. Sometime, attending a 12-step or SMART Recovery meeting may be tiring and just something you do not feel like doing.

We have all been there. Fortunately, this apathy towards other fellow human beings is largely transient. In time, you will once again crave the company of others in order to sustain your recovery.

What is equine therapy?

When you do not feel like seeking help from others, why not consider equine therapy (hippotherapy). If you did not know, equine means 'relating to or affecting horses or other members of the horse family'.

There are many forms of equine therapy. Equine therapy in its broadest sense could simply mean travelling to a local stable in order to spend some time with horses. There exist many commercial stables, and for a small fee, you are able to ride a horse with guidance from a trained handler.

If you are willing to invest more time and money, you may pay for structured equine therapy sessions. Here, you will be paired with a horse and a professional therapist and horse handler.  In fact, many drug and alcohol rehab clinics now offer equine therapy as part of their core residential offering.

What happens during equine therapy sessions?

During equine therapy sessions, you will benefit from a number of activities include: 

  • Grooming the horse
  • Feeding the horse
  • Leading and halting

Although equine therapy involves horses, you typically will not ride the horse during these sessions. During equine sessions, you will interact with the horse. The therapist will guide you during these sessions and encourage you to reflect on your emotions as you interact with the horse.

Why does equine therapy work for addiction?

Equine therapy has proven to be successful for assisting people who suffer from a range of addictions, including addiction to alcohol, heroin cocaine and prescription medication. Equine therapy is also effective for treating people with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The way horses are able to interact with humans is believed to be the key reason why equine therapy is so effective when it comes to addiction treatment.

Horses are able to mirror what you are feeling and react to the way you are behaving by mirroring back these emotions. You may then use this feedback you receive from the horses in changing how you process thoughts and emotions.

If you feel anxious, the horse will also begin to feel anxious, and you will be encouraged to respond in a positive way so that the horse returns the favour in kind. 

Unlike humans, horses have at their disposal 17 different facial movements that allow the horse to communicate emotion. 

Because horses are herding animals, they are able to utilise sensory data in order to avoid danger. Amazingly, they are also able to hear a human heartbeat within a four feet distance.  Research also suggests horses are able to synchronise their own heartbeat to that of a human's.

During equine therapy sessions, horses respond within a similar spectrum of emotional and physical response to that of the person undergoing therapy. Thus, the horse’s responses act as a proxy to the inner psychology taking place within the client's mind.

At drug and alcohol rehab clinics, equine therapy typically plays a small role in an overall treatment plan. Equine therapy is particularly useful for clients who may have made little progress in traditional talking-based therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy or psychotherapy. 

In the past, a variety of different animals such as cats, dogs and even dolphins have been utilised in treating physically and mentally sick people. However, horses stand out amongst the pack in their ability to help humans who are suffering with mental health issues.

During equine therapy sessions, clients are allowed to sharpen their focus and realise their priorities. Working with horses allows clients to establish self-confidence and overcome feelings of inadequacy.  

For many clients, the relationship that's built with the horses will be one of unconditional love and trust. Many people suffering from addiction have been mentally and physically abused and so establishing trust with other humans is often problematic.  The relationship clients build with horses during equine therapy assists them in overcoming mental roadblocks in establishing similar relationships with other humans.

It's also worth noting that equine therapy typically takes place in country-side locations. This means you will benefit from being exposed to fresh and unpolluted air. You will also receive many hours of healthy sun exposure that serves to increase the amount of Vitamin D in your system.  You will also benefit from several hours of exercise. 

Further resources

Please note that the below resources are UK-oriented:


Published on: March 4, 2019