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    Benefits of equine therapy for addiction recovery

    White River Manor has introduced equine therapy as part of its integrated approach to treating mental health disorders and addictions. It’s another bow in their quiver to achieve their goal of total mind, body and soul healing for their residents.

    What is equine therapy and how does it benefit residents at White River Manor, the leading mental wellness and addiction treatment centre in South Africa? Let’s look at its origins and what equine treatment can offer you in conjunction with traditional talk therapy.

    What is equine therapy?

    Equine therapy uses horses and the natural ‘horsey’ environment to help residents build self-confidence, become more self-aware and self-efficient, communicate better, learn to trust again, develop their social skills and improve impulse control.

    This list of benefits may seem far-reaching, but equine therapy has proven its worth as an effective method for treating substance use disorders and co-occurring mental health disorders (dual diagnosis).

    Equine therapy is used to treat various conditions, including:

    • development delay disorders such as ADHD, ADD and autism
    • anxiety disorders such a generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
    • congenital conditions such as epilepsy, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy and Fragile X syndrome
    • physical disabilities such as muscular atrophy, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injuries
    • traumatic brain injuries
    • behaviour addictions, including gaming, gambling and the Internet
    • substance use disorder (alcohol and drug addiction)
    • mental illnesses associated with sexual abuse, rape or exposure to abuse and trauma at a young age

    Horses are not the only creatures used for animal-assisted therapy. Dogs, cats, birds, chickens, dolphins, fish, sheep, elephants, hamsters and even pet rats are also used in this type of therapy.

    How did equine therapy evolve?

    Hippocrates of Kos

    Another name for equine therapy is hippotherapy. Don’t let the term confuse you; equine therapy has nothing to do with hippos in Africa. Hippotherapy came to be in 460 BC in ancient Greece after it was first mentioned in the writings of Hippocrates of Kos (Hippocrates II), a Greek physician of the Age of Pericles (b.460BC, d.365BC) who is regarded as the Father of Medicine.

    Charles Chassaignac

    In 1875, Charles Chassaignac, a French neurologist, introduced the benefits of equine therapy after he published findings from a research study that showed horseback riding dramatically improved balance, motion, muscle tone, joint movement, posture and the overall mood of patients with various physical and neurological disabilities.

    Olive Sands

    During the First World War, Olive Sands introduced equine therapy to the United Kingdom. Sands would take her horses to the Oxford Hospital to help physically and emotionally rehabilitate wounded soldiers. After that, animal-assisted therapy grew in popularity to supplement physiotherapy treatment for various physical ailments.

    Scandinavia polio outbreak

    In 1946, equine therapy was introduced in Scandinavia to help people suffering from health problems caused by poliomyelitis (polio) outbreak. The gentle gait of horses stimulates neuromuscular changes in patients suffering from muscle degeneration caused by the disease.

    Liz Hartel

    Liz Hartel from Denmark probably made the most significant impact in promoting animal-assisted therapy when she founded the British Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA) in the mid-1950s. Hartel was a gifted horsewoman who won a silver medal in the Helsinki Olympic Games, even though she was mobility-impaired after contracting polio as a child.

    Hartel rode horses to strengthen her leg muscles and, having experienced the life-changing benefits of riding and caring for horses, was determined to help youngsters improve their lives through equine therapy, establish safety guidelines and train and certify riding instructors.

    How does equine therapy work?

    Equine-Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) involves bringing humans and horses together to harness the incredible healing powers of these majestic creatures. You don’t have to ride the therapy horses if the idea of horseback riding worries you. In fact, most equine therapy programmes are designed around you “having your feet on the ground”.

    Horses are gentle, beautiful creatures that instantly sense your mood when you approach and interact with them, something a human therapist can struggle with at the beginning of an addiction treatment programme. Horses are prey animals and survive by picking up the body language of their mates in the herd, including fear and panic, which triggers their flight response.

    What makes horses unique is they have an innate way of mirroring your thoughts and feelings and will reflect on you the vibes you are giving off during your therapy sessions. Studies show that horses can read your facial expressions and remember your mood when they first meet you.

    Horses will respond positively to you if you are relaxed, smiley and happy around them. However, horses will let you know in no uncertain terms that they don’t want to be around you if you make them feel uncomfortable or fearful.

    • If a horse senses you are angry or agitated, it may become stubborn or headstrong
    • If you snatch the halter or become aggressive, your horse will pull away or jerk its head up
    • If you feel anxious, your horse may become jumpy or skittish
    • If you feel sad or hopeless, your horse may become lethargic or sluggish
    • If you shout, your horse will put its ears back, get skittish and may rear up or bolt

    In individual and group therapy sessions, you can fake being okay and get away with it for a while. Around horses, you can’t hide your feelings. Horses pick up fear, stress and anxiety, and then mirror your feelings in how they respond to you.

    Over time, you’ll become more self-aware, noticing how your moods affect your horse and picking up signals that your horse is reflecting in its behaviour. You’ll learn to apply what you experience in equine therapy sessions to the rest of your life.

    With the help of the therapy horses and a professional equine therapist, you’ll develop valuable tools to improve impulse control, regulate your moods, build trust and patience, and grow your confidence and self-worth.

    Equine therapy improves your mental and physical health

    EAAT is used for physical, occupational, speech, mental health and addiction treatment. Horses provide sensory, cognitive and neuromotor input for people living with physical disabilities, mental illnesses and behaviour problems.

    You grow emotionally and spiritually by building a trusting relationship with your horse and connecting on a deep level, which some people find impossible to do with a human psychotherapist. The person you become after hours spent in equine therapy is more self-aware, self-assured and self-confident.

    If you choose to ride the therapy horses, you benefit physically from the isometric exercise. This exercise places tension on muscles without causing movement in your joints, similar to planking and many yoga exercises. Isometric exercise is beneficial if you are physically weak and out of shape after years of abusing alcohol or drugs.

    Horseback riding helps strengthen your muscles by targeting specific muscle groups and helps build and maintain core muscle strength which helps with your posture and coordination. When you ride a horse, you engage muscles such as obliques and abdominals to balance. You also have to engage muscles in your back, chest, inner thighs and pelvis, which helps you maintain the proper posture when you’re riding.

    What do you do in equine therapy sessions?

    In therapy sessions, you work closely with a qualified equine therapist who gives you tasks, such as walking the horse out of its stable, fastening its halter, filling up the water trough, putting out feed and grooming the horse. Some tasks are purposely chosen to increase your anxiety, stress or fear levels.

    The therapy session starts with grooming and familiarising yourself with such a large animal. It gives you a chance to stroke and speak quietly to it, which helps calm both you and the horse down. This time is designed to build trust and confidence, something in short supply when fighting an addiction.

    The next part of the session is spent doing various tasks that you’d do if you owned a horse, including lifting the horse’s leg to clean its hooves, brushing its teeth or combing its tail. Or the task could be to set up poles for jumping and then run alongside the horse, encouraging it to trot through the obstacle course. If you’re not used to horses, this can be quite frightening and overwhelming.

    After completing your tasks, you’ll discuss what you were thinking or feeling with your therapist. If you battled to complete the job, you’ll problem solve what you can do differently next time. Your therapist integrates psychotherapy (talk therapy) methods in the therapy sessions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and trauma-focused therapy.

    What are the benefits of equine therapy?

    Former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Churchill was spot on. Horses have incredible healing powers, and interacting with them is bound to boost your physical and emotional wellbeing.

    Here’s a list of the different ways equine therapy can help you as part of an addiction treatment programme:

    • symptoms of anxiety and depression decrease
    • stress levels decrease
    • blood pressure and heart rate decreases
    • beat-endorphins boosted
    • self-esteem and self-confidence grows
    • sense of empowerment increases
    • self-control improves
    • communication and social skills improve
    • problem-solving and decision-making skills improve
    • coping skills improve
    • automatic negative thoughts are easier to control
    • resilience and assertiveness improves
    • positive emotional growth blossoms

    What lessons do horses teach us?

    Horses are unbiased, non-judgmental, patient and trusting. They do not lie, manipulate or threaten the person caring for them. These incredible values are in short supply if you struggle with an addiction or have suffered from physical or emotional abuse.

    If humans have hurt or betrayed you, horses restore your faith that there is ‘someone’ in this world you can trust. If you find it challenging to open up to a human therapist in individual or group therapy, you’ll find it a lot easier to talk to a peaceful creature that shows no prejudice, bias or judgement. If you feel worthless or hopeless, caring for horses gives you a sense of purpose.

    Horses teach us to:

    • face and overcome fears
    • believe in ourselves
    • trust again
    • be patient
    • be kind
    • show empathy and compassion
    • feel pride
    • accept responsibilities
    • take care of ourselves and others
    • appreciate the simple things in life
    • put other people’s needs before yours

    How does equine therapy help someone in addiction recovery?

    Equine therapy is not offered at White River Manor to keep residents busy and give them something fun to do for a few hours. It’s a structured treatment programme run by a professional equine therapist trained in this groundbreaking therapeutic method.

    It complements advanced psychotherapy methods as part of an integrated addiction treatment programme. Sometimes, the horses are the only ‘therapists’ able to connect with and heal a physically, mentally, and spiritually broken person after years of alcohol or drug abuse.

    Equine therapy is designed to provide residents in recovery at White River Manor the opportunity to identify deep-seated emotions, build their confidence and self-esteem, and develop the tools needed to maintain their sobriety when they leave the safety of the rehab centre and return to their daily lives.

    We’re here to help.

    Contact us today if you’d like a confidential and free chat with one of our highly-trained mental health and addiction care professionals at White River Manor in South Africa.

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