What is Equine Therapy and How Can It Help Young Men in Recovery?
Participating in therapeutic activities is a requirement for residents of The Grounds Recovery, but this doesn’t mean we spend all of our time in group therapy, journaling, and practicing mindfulness-based deep breathing exercises (though all of these beneficial activities are either required or strongly encouraged). Rather, our program is built upon supporting our members’ quest for meaningful growth through a variety of activities that are curated to be engaging and effective on multiple levels. From cooking, fitness, and music classes to surf therapy and community service, our goal is to help our residents build substance-free lives that are dynamic, engaging and worth protecting. Of these activities, one of our house favorites is equine therapy.
Equine therapy or Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT), is a type of experiential therapy that uses horses and other equines to help people with a variety of mental health, trauma and substance abuse issues. It is used for emotional growth development, stress reduction, and coping with anxiety, among other benefits.
Emotional Growth Development
Because horses are non-judgmental yet incredibly responsive to the movement and emotions of their handlers, they can act as a mirror, promoting self-awareness, and providing an opportunity for authentic connection that is in-the-moment, non-transactional, and genuine. This type of relationship can be empowering for people in recovery because they often feel judged due to past behavior and have lost faith in their own ability to achieve goals, make decisions, and have power within their own lives. Equine therapy also helps individuals better understand boundaries and can help with developing the self-regulation and verbal and non-verbal communication skills required for healthy interaction with others.
Stress Reduction, Anxiety & PTSD
Addiction is very often accompanied by or is caused by other mental health issues. Many individuals with stress, depression, anxiety, PTSD and other co-occurring mental health disorders use substances like food, alcohol, drugs, gambling or pornography as a way to cope. Relived trauma, social discomfort, feelings of hopelessness, and lack of purpose are all triggers that can lead to relapse. Equine therapy has been shown to promote feelings of safety and calm, while being in close proximity to such a large animal can help individuals overcome fear and build self-esteem.
The Mindfulness-Equine Therapy Connection
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, The Grounds Recovery uses many methods in helping our residents develop healthy strategies for lasting recovery. Deep breathing and meditation are a part of our wellness regime, and equine therapy dovetails perfectly with these techniques because working with horses can actually induce a state of mindfulness akin to what is found in consistent, guided meditation practice. An article from the Journal of Traumatic Stress reports on a recent study that, “found significant increases in mindfulness following the program. Instructions and discussions emphasized a nonjudgmental accepting awareness, and the present-focused awareness of the horses may also have encouraged mindfulness.”
This is useful in the transitional-living setting because mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) has been shown to deliver promising results in the field of substance abuse recovery. Biomed Central Addiction Science and Clinical Practice Journal reports, “studies indicate that MBIs reduce substance misuse and craving by modulating cognitive, affective, and psychophysiological processes integral to self-regulation and reward processing.”
The Grounds Recovery partners with Rocking Horse Ranch, a horse rescue and equine therapy center, which is located close to our transitional-living residences in the nearby community of El Cajon.
Life skills development, practicing communication and learning to understand and control emotions and emotional triggers are all part of building the self-empowerment necessary to live a fulfilling sober life. Equine therapy is an experience-based activity that helps with all these skills, but more than that, hanging out with horses is about as fun and rewarding of an activity as you can get. Our residents love it, we love it, and we are grateful to be able to share this unique experience with them on a regular basis.