Usually, addiction treatment includes a series of predictable steps that may start with medical detox and proceed through group and individual therapy over the course of a comprehensive rehabilitation program.

These steps may take place in a hospital, an addiction treatment center, or a community facility. Wherever addiction treatment takes place, the goal is the same, and that is to help patients rehabilitate from addiction and go on to lead a productive life without the use of alcohol or illicit drugs.

Some programs have started to branch out from this traditional healing model, keeping all the essential elements of detox and therapy, but adding other types of therapy. One relatively new type of therapy is equine-assisted therapy, or therapy that includes the care of horses. Regular interaction with horses has been found to be a good way for some patients to work through psychological issues that are difficult to address in more traditional therapy modes.

What Equine Therapy Offers in Addiction Treatment

The process of interacting with horses over a period of several weeks has been shown to be beneficial to some recovering addicts. Interaction with other animals, like sheep, cows, rabbits, and chickens are also starting to be studied. Caring for these creatures appears to improve addicts’ coping ability and self-esteem. Specifically, equine therapy programs offer:

  • Immediate feedback – since horses are pack animals and can sense other creatures’ feelings and respond accordingly
  • Learning opportunities – not only about how to care for horses, but also about how to interact with others, whether equine or human
  • Trust-building – because often it is easier to develop a trusting relationship with a therapist in the safe environment of equine therapy
  • A relationship free from judgment – which can be valuable for the person who has struggled with negative relationship consequences of addiction

A Study of Addiction Treatment in First Nation Youth

A 2014 study of First Nation Youth in Canada evaluated the well-being of addiction patients engaged in equine therapy. Researchers hypothesized that equine therapy would help these youth in their addiction treatment, and it did. The simple act of interacting with horses improved well-being and helped these young people improve their communication skills.

Other positive benefits noted included stronger self-identity, an improved sense of self-worth, better problem-solving capability, and a more positive attitude. In short, it showed that equine therapy can be a creative way to help with addiction treatment.

Equine Therapy Particularly Appropriate in Dual Diagnosis

Equine therapy is new enough that there has not been extensive clinical research on it, but early studies are promising. Furthermore, addiction specialists believe that equine therapy may prove to be particularly beneficial for patients whose drug addiction is diagnosed alongside other conditions like clinical depression or anxiety. Other types of animal-assisted therapy may be studied as well, since access to horses is somewhat limited, particularly in urban environments.

The human-animal bond has long been shown to offer positive health benefits, such as reducing agitation in Alzheimer’s patients and lowering anxiety in cancer patients. It is not that big a stretch to envision animal-assisted therapy as a component of addiction treatment for people who are open to it.

Studies in 2015 and 2016 showed that the mere act of gazing into a dog’s eyes can cause an increase in the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin, and that adolescent boys in addiction treatment who played with shelter dogs regularly experienced lower levels of hostility and sadness.

Addiction treatment is primarily a medical process for the medical disease of addiction. Just as animal-assisted therapy has been shown to be valuable in other medical treatment settings, researchers are coming to understand that it may have an important role in addiction treatment as well. If you would like to learn more about addiction and its treatment options, we encourage you to contact us at any time. Help is here, whenever you are ready.

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