Modern equine-assisted therapy is used for a variety of mental and behavioral health conditions such as depression, abuse issues, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as drug and alcohol addiction. It allows participants to learn how their actions and emotions impact those around them. It may also help addicts reconnect with emotions that have remained dormant during their struggle with substance use. Patients often experience a significant improvement in their ability to trust others, access emotion, request help, and rise to challenges throughout their recovery.
A Canadian study found that people who participated in mental health and addictions treatment programs involving interactions with horses reported therapeutic benefits for their health. In the study, 60 clients provided feedback on 287 encounters (sessions with horses) in programs at four addiction and mental health treatment sites in Saskatchewan.
“The clients participating in all the programs felt love and support from the horses, which is an important and often overlooked element of human healing,” says Darlene Chalmers of the University of Regina, one of the researchers.
Co-author Colleen Dell of the University of Saskatchewan says “the vast majority of clients felt calm, supported. and in control of their feelings following the horse interactions. Some were more willing to co-operate in treatment programs following the sessions.”
Horses are animals especially suited for healing interactions with humans. Helen Sorensen is the owner of Equine Alliance, an equine-assisted therapy center in Australia. She told Australian broadcaster ABC that horses were excellent therapists because of their reflective qualities.
"Horses are prey animals, so their senses are incredibly highly tuned to pick up any shifts or changes in our heart rate, our breathing and our intentions," she said. "What the horses need to be safe is congruency and consistency, which are two things human beings are inherently not."
Sometimes the horses themselves need healing, too. The nearby horse ranch where Decision Point patients receive equine therapy is a refuge for rescued horses that are specially trained and attentively cared for to afford people the benefits of interacting with these beautiful, gentle animals. Patients are assigned an equine therapist and may participate in a number of horse-related activities with emphasis on emotions, self-awareness and identity. Specific activities may vary depending on the needs of the patient.