Six thousand years ago, wild horses roamed the plains of the world. They were like many prey animals—fast, living in large herds and generally non-aggressive. In the Copper Age, the Botai civilization of the Urals began to hunt them for their meat and skins and later for domestication. In horses, the Botai found a great, quick-witted and forgiving partner that gave them a huge strategic advantage over other clans of their time. Over time, all civilizations came to include horses as part of their culture.
What is it about horses that brings out a unique response in people? Perhaps, it’s because they’re not seen on every block like a cat or dog. Maybe, it’s the horse’s air of independence—the wild stallion, tamed just enough to become a loving companion in the Wild West or out on the farm. Then, of course, there’s the horse’s elegance on the racetrack and in riding competitions. In all likelihood, it’s a combination of all of the above and more that makes horses such tremendous aids when treating a person who is struggling with addiction.
A horse’s sheer size can be intimidating, but this is actually considered positive for therapy. Their tender side is intertwined with an independent streak, ensuring that the human-horse relationship takes on significant meaning. A person doesn’t need to ride a horse to develop a rapport. Patients are encouraged to start by hand feeding horses hay, carrots and sugar cubes. They move on to petting and grooming the gentle giants; in this way, both human and horse get to learn about each other.
Horses are very intelligent. A rich, in-depth unspoken communication occurs during the process, leading to a meaningful bond. Horses, like humans, have distinct personalities, so therapists take great care in pairing the correct person with the right animal. Riding a horse certainly provides a powerful added dimension to the experience.
Interacting with horses helps people learn a lot about themselves. Horses have no hidden agenda, are clear about their needs and do not tolerate bullying. You need to earn a horse’s respect for it to follow your lead. Unlike a dog, horses don’t readily offer unconditional love, nor are they single-mindedly self-interested, like many cats. Horses require some effort. They not only need the people caring for them to be responsible, but they also require those people to communicate well.
It is for these reasons that horses are so useful in treatment. Horses’ innate nature as prey makes them extremely sensitive to potential predators. As a result, they pay close attention to the moods and behaviors of humans. Horses are Zen masters and provide instant feedback. Most treatment centers utilizing equine therapy are passionate about their horses, and that shines through in treatment. It’s no accident that most of the rehabs that offer equine therapy are standout facilities.
Mending Fences, for example, is named after a top racehorse that was leading in the prestigious Preakness when he rounded a turn, badly, broke his leg and was euthanized. In the horse’s honor, the owners turned their farm into an equine rehabilitation center, but five years later a trainer and horse were killed in a freak accident. The owners were devastated. Then, motivated by the movie Crazy Heart, in which Jeff Bridges played a down-on-his-luck country music star, they turned the farm into a place of healing for both horses and humans alike. Heroes & Horses is another exceptional location where patients can benefit from equine assisted therapy.
Like all other animal-assisted therapies, equine therapy helps people struggling with addiction to cope with feelings and emotions, so they can better manage their behaviors in a healthy way. Combined with traditional treatment, equine therapy hones physical abilities while building cognitive skills and trust as part of a comprehensive path to recovery.