“You do WHAT with horses?” Not an uncommon question that I hear. When I interact with people outside of Stonegate Center and explain to them what I do, I often get funny looks, blank faces, or eccentric responses like above. As I attempt to explain that I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) who specializes in Equine Therapy, the reactions vary, and I have come to the realization that most people don’t know that much about Equine Therapy.
Recently, a friend asked me “Why do horses need therapy?” At first, I laughed. I thought he was joking, but his furrowed eyebrows and cocked head hinted otherwise. Some people respond with a generic “that’s cool” followed by an awkward pause and instant regret they asked the question in the first place.
With all of the varied reactions, I wanted to take the opportunity to clear the air and give everyone some background on equine therapy. To begin, let’s look at the history of using horses and other animals in therapy, an overview of the different models used, as well as why we choose to use horses at Stonegate Center.
Clinical History of Equine Therapy
Horses have been utilized in different types of therapy since the ancient Greeks, who used them to treat people with incurable diseases. The earliest known record of horses being used for some sort of therapy is in the writings of Hippocrates. In his notes, the Greek philosopher discussed the therapeutic value of riding.
Other claims detailing the benefits of riding horses date back to the 17th century where documents illustrate this type of therapy being prescribed as the treatment of gout, neurological disorders and low morale. Think that’s far-fetched? Well, more recently, in 1946, Equine Therapy was introduced in Scandinavia after an outbreak of poliomyelitis.
Hippotherapy, or the use of horses and riding for those with physical disabilities, as currently practiced was developed in the 1960s and was used in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland as an adjunct to traditional physical therapy. The treatment was conducted by a physiotherapist, a specially trained horse, and a horse handler. In these sessions, the physiotherapist gave directives for the horse handler to follow such as proper gait, tempo, cadence, and direction.
The movement of the horse was carefully modulated to influence neuromuscular changes in the patient. The first standardized hippotherapy curriculum would be formulated in the late 1980s by a group of Canadian and American therapists who traveled to Germany to learn about hippotherapy and would bring the new discipline back to North America upon their return.
In the 1990s, horses began to be used in the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. Two organizations were born from this, one called PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship) and the other EAGALA (Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Personal Development). Currently, both organizations provide certifications for those that wish to practice equine-assisted therapy but provide different ways, or models, of how they believe this should be done.
EAGALA is the primary model used at Stonegate Center and has several distinct features. The main one is that it is ground-based. This means that all humans and animals always keep their feet and hooves on the ground. Another distinction in this model is the experience, which we will discuss later.
Today, horses and other animals – even chickens! – are used in these types of therapies to assist in treating numerous mental and physical disorders as well as drug and alcohol addiction. I’ve even worked with a steer named “Dr. Phil” in the past! As well, equine therapy can help with other specific populations including veterans with past trauma, children with autism, or those with debilitating disabilities. Horses are able to tend to those that suffer from addiction in unique ways, which we can see below.
Listed below are 5 reasons, or features, of why we use the therapeutic model of EAGALA in our drug and alcohol addiction treatment program at Stonegate Center:
#1) The Power of Horses
This is the number one benefit of working with animals in a therapy setting. Think about it, horses are large animals that can be intimidating for many people. When you see a horse from a distance, many people think, “Oh, how beautiful!”
But, when you are up close and personal with a horse in the arena, the reaction can be one of hesitance. With little prior experience, many are fearful and timid, which presents an opportunity to help one overcome their initial fears. This is the first interaction that many people have with the animals in their equine experience. It can be extremely powerful to have to overcome this initial fear in order to begin an even more powerful relationship going forward with the animal.
Those that struggle with substance use disorders or addiction are particularly in need of understanding this power. For this population, control has been at the center of their lives. Whether they are the ones attempting to control their emotions with drugs or alcohol or are affected by their families attempts to control them because of their continued struggle, the control remains constant.
But, when these individuals – my clients – walk into our arena at Stonegate Center, the change is awe-inspiring. Immediately, they concede their control, or attempt to and quickly realize that the animal is more powerful than they are. This can help our clients relate their powerlessness to control their addiction – a pillar of the 12-Step traditions.
At Stonegate Center, clients are also able to find that turning over that power is simpler than they imagined, and this tends to lead to a beautiful new relationship with God and the animal. The need for addicts and alcoholics to discover their powerlessness is vital in their relationship with a Higher Power as well as their long-term sobriety.
#2) Experiential – Seeing and Doing, Not Just Talking
In our approach, the EAGALA (Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association) model, one of the unique distinctions is that our activities and therapeutic interventions are always experiential. In other words, the point of each session is for the client to interact with the animal and the environment.
Many times, our clients are asked to do something with the animal in some sort of directed activity. For example, one of our clients’ favorite activities is playing Horse Billiards. In this session, each client can engage, express creativity, and have fun while creating an enhanced bond with the animal and the rest of the group that they never would have done otherwise.
Experiential vs. Talk Therapy
In comparison to traditional talk therapy, our method grants people the opportunity to have a life-changing experience with a powerful animal. Unique bonds and powerful experiences are more easily remembered and recalled as our clients process through their feelings and emotions.
In fact, research in the field of learning has determined that humans are better able to recall and put learned skills into practice if they have previously done the skills, making experiential therapy extremely valuable in creating long-lasting change in recovery.
After each experiential activity, we then take time as mental health and equine specialists to process each session. These sessions are intended to help our clients describe their experience and discover how their interpretations might apply to them, their addiction, their past, present, and future experiences in life.
To do so, we use processing questions. These questions are intended to help the client see what happened and understand and use “clean” language in order to draw this out. Processing questions after an equine therapy session could include inquiries like:
- What happened to the animal?
- What emotions did this activity bring about in you?
- How did the horse respond to activity? And, what could you have done better?
- Who/What does the animal represent in your life? Why?
- How does your experience here relate to your addiction?
Needing to have hands-on training is particularly beneficial for addicts and alcoholics. We value the belief that our clients need to have a personal experience of seeing and doing rather than just having someone tell them the information and expect results. This is what makes this type of therapy, and Stonegate Center’s model, so powerful for addiction treatment.
Having a new experience is exactly what our clients, those men and women struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, need in their life. That’s why Equine-Assisted Therapy is an integral part of the recovery process.
#3) Mirroring Healthy Relationships
I like to describe horses as lacking the filter that human beings typically have. Since they have no filter, they are better able to express how they are feeling. Now, obviously, the animal is not going to communicate this with you verbally – unless you’re working with Mr. Ed! In turn, horses communicate with us quite well non-verbally.
Because of this, it helps our clients to begin to do the same! This is crucial in helping humans to begin to understand and have better relationships with each other. If you want to have healthy relationships, you need to be able to communicate. And if you want to communicate effectively, you must understand how important and vital non-verbal communication is to our everyday relationships.
Another aspect of having healthy relationships is that horses are extremely caring and forgiving. Horses have distinct personalities, attitudes, and moods that people must perceive, understand, and relate to creating the opportunity to understand and have healthy relationships with them in return.
#4) Horses are Hard Work
Simply put, horses are hard work. They are complex animals with many nuances, and as such, it takes ample time to get to know them deeply. They require large amounts of attention and gentle care. Although our clients interact with our horses during equine therapy, they are also able to take care of them in between daily sessions. This giving back, selflessness, and ability to empathize and take care of another creature helps tremendously in treatment.
The beauty of horses is that caring for them, developing a relationship with them, and other intricacies typically do not come easily. This perfect for many of us and our clients because we live in a fast-twitch, quick response age, in which results are expected immediately. On the contrary, horses require long-term love. They are able to point us towards the truth, that good things take work sometimes. When we invest ourselves in something, whether it is work, relationships, or goals, we find this more rewarding and satisfactory for our lives, having had this opportunity.
With this, we find that treating our addiction takes hard work. The old saying, “It works if you work it,” becomes truer as we work with horses. For instance, if I want to experience more well-rounded and healthy relationships, I need to put in the work – whether it is with horses or other people around me.
On the other hand, if I want to experience freedom from my addiction, it is going to take hard work too – lots of long days, careful introspection, and repetition of newly-formed, healthy behaviors. Through the experience of these therapy sessions, you will begin to see the joy in the hard work towards recovery.
#5) Horses Help with Everything!
With everything we have talked about in terms of the of the benefits of working with horses, they all lead to this simple fact… Horses can and will help with everything! Whether its relationships, communication, seeing and doing, hard work, horses give us the opportunity to work through and experience each of these things a little more deeply.
The more that we work with horses, the more we see ourselves in them and learn about who we are. Something we couldn’t have done on our own. More than anything, horses bring awareness to what is going on for each person as we see them and interact with them. This awareness allows us to change, which is truly, at its most basic level, the point of therapy. Enacting change for the better.
Change is exactly what we are seeking when we seek treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. We want to change our habits, our behaviors, and eventually, change our lives. Through the experience of working with animals, we can understand how these two forces – horses and humans, addiction and sobriety, maladaptive and healthy behaviors – work in the world. This insight and awareness then begin to change the addictive patterns in our lives.
With this new experience, the addict and alcoholic can begin to implement the principles that they have learned during the therapy sessions into their lives, finding long-lasting change towards recovery and sobriety.
As you can see, the benefits of equine-assisted therapy in addiction treatment are extraordinary and vast. This is why Stonegate Center has been providing world-class treatment and equine therapy for all our clients and will continue to do so through new and innovative ways in the future.
Date Published: January 5, 2019 Last Updated: January 1, 2023
Allison Johnson is the Director of Compliance for Stonegate Center. She is a recovered alcoholic and addict with over 7 years sober. Her experience in residential treatment extends to her love of all things compliance and quality assurance.