Equine facilitated therapy involves the use of horses to establish trust, emotional openness, and a new approach to intimacy and bonding for addicts and alcoholics in recovery. As these very issues touch the core of the addict/alcoholic’s psychic pain, exploring them through the use of these large and powerful mammals is an effective way to promote healing.
Besides being massive, horses are highly intuitive and sensitive animals. The average person who isn’t familiar with them might approach one with trepidation but will often find that the animal is friendly and available. The experience of intimacy with the animal can be profound.
The addict who has been brought to the point of surrender to treatment has usually suffered damaged relationships and isolation. Mistrust and emotional defensiveness are the tools developed to protect against feelings of abandonment and betrayal. Anger, fear, and contradictory feelings of superiority and inferiority affect most of the addict’s sense of self and his or her experience of the world and, consequently, their decisions and actions.
Equine facilitated therapy is not about riding horses, although that may be an activity that brings added enjoyment and benefit. Instead, it’s about interacting with the animals, one on one, so that the patient can learn more about herself. Horses mirror people’s emotions and provide feedback. Through this modality, an addict’s feelings of fear, anger, sadness, and isolation can be brought to the surface and dealt with. At the same time, positive feelings—of joy, peace, and self-confidence—can emerge and be recognized for cultivation.
The newly recovering addict who opens emotionally through the act of bonding with a horse is then able to transfer that openness to other people—initially in one-on-one sessions with a counselor/therapist, and then with other patients in a group. When this is accomplished, approaching formerly estranged family members, friends, and employers (as well as new acquaintances) can be done on a new footing—one that leads to healthier and more stable relationships. The recovering addict/alcoholic with tools for interacting with other people stands a much greater chance of experiencing long-term sobriety.