Horses and Recovery: What is the Relationship?

Horses and Recovery: What is the Relationship?

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The Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association (EAGALA), founded in 1999, is an international nonprofit association for professionals incorporating horses to address mental health and personal development needs.

EAGALA Model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) incorporates horses experientially for mental and behavioral health therapy and personal development.  It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals…EAP is experiential in nature.  This means that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing (or discussing) feelings, behaviors, and patterns.

The focus of EAP is not riding or horsemanship.  The focus of EAP involves setting up ground activities involving the horses which will require the client or group to apply certain skills or opportunities for personal understanding. EAP is a powerful and effective therapeutic approach that has an incredible impact on individuals, youth, families, and groups.

Why Horses?

Horses are large and can be intimidating, however, they take care of themselves and have survived as prey in a world full of predators, by having a highly developed sense of self, and awareness of body language, as well as a very real social responsibility to the herd or herds they are members of. This awareness and social structure comes in to play in their relationships to humans and horse & human groups as well. Relating to and working with horses brings in real relationship interaction for clients, as well as a huge host of metaphors for how we function in our social groups as humans. Those metaphors and relationship experiences become the focus of therapeutic work.

Equine Assisted Programming & Addictions

Through interaction with the horses and reflection and processing in the arena, we can address issues common to those people struggling with addictions. Addictive behaviors are often the coping skill of choice and during recovery, there is a host of coping skills that clients are either out of practice using or perhaps some that were never really developed at all. Being in the arena with horses allows a person to practice and become aware in real time, with real experience, and with the guidance of professionals, all those non-addictive behavior options that translate to a sober world.

Things like frustration tolerance, communication skills, decision-making skills, relationship building, stress management, and personal awareness aren’t just abstract ideas and understanding. The concepts become real experiences with living, breathing, individuals (the horses), giving feedback through their own nonverbal communication and behaviors.

The horses embody and demonstrate how to live in a group of individuals and have healthy conflict. They have individual personalities and choose different ways of managing relationships and personal preferences or tolerances.

Clients can come and learn what it is really like to try new behavior, or struggle with a relationship, in a safe and forgiving horse herd. It is a small step between a treatment program environment and out in the world or your family, a small step with big meaning.

Take for example a young woman who has been struggling in an equine program to develop a relationship with a specific horse. Each week she would try to get close and the horse would move away. Each time the horse moved away the young woman would get frustrated, label herself angry or say “I don’t care what that horse thinks!” But for weeks she would come to the barn and say, “maybe today I can touch that horse”.

Then last week as the horse moved away yet again she sat down in the dirt. The equine facilitating team asked what was happening and what’s different this week? The young woman stated “Nothing is different, she (the horse) doesn’t trust me, she doesn’t believe me. She is just like my daughter, she thinks if she lets me get close I’ll hurt her or I won’t be there for her when she needs me” and she started to cry.

The team then asked if there was anything the young woman could think of that might make a difference to the horse. The young woman said, “I guess I’ll just have to make sure I’m here and stop pushing her until she understands that I can stay sober.” As the young woman sat in the dirt of the arena for the next 10 minutes the horse stopped moving away and turned to look toward her. After another 10 minutes, the horse began to move slowly toward to young woman for the first time in 4 weeks. The facilitating team stepped back, away from the young woman and the horse and stayed quiet, no questions, no comments. By the end of the hour, the young woman and the horse were standing next to each other and the young woman was talking quietly to the horse. When the session time was over the horse followed the young woman to the gate of the arena.

The shift in behaviors was profound. The young woman was still in the experience as the session ended. We will follow up to talk with her next session about her awareness of what happened, how changing her behavior and staying with it impacts her relationship with the horse, and maybe her relationship with her daughter in the long run. But for now, we want her to leave with the experience of it in her senses and not a discussion of abstract ideas.

There is an action component to recovery from addiction and here in our arena, people get the chance to practice the action in a non-threatening place with the support of our horse and human team members. That’s why the EAGALA model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy can be a breath of life and a true practice for health and healing from addictions.

StarrLee Heady M.A., LMHC
EAGALA Advanced