By Ioana Cozma

Updated: 14 June 2024 & medically reviewed by Morgan Blair

Equine-assisted services, or EAS, assumes a therapeutic triad between the client, the horse, and the psychotherapist. The therapist uses the horses to help people in addiction recovery learn healthy behaviors based on meaningful interactions. Horses also promote a sense of calmness, safety, and self-worth.

Equine Therapy for Addiction Treatment

What is equine therapy?

Equine therapy is a therapeutic approach that relies on meaningful interactions between horses and humans. This concept includes equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) and appears under the larger umbrella concept of equine-assisted services (EAS).[1][2]

The horses play different roles depending on individual cases, either as supporters or mediators. They can also trigger particular actions or become metaphors for the client’s subjective feelings and experiences.[3]

As a result, the equine streamlines therapy and provides context for clients to understand their journeys.

Horses are used in this practice because they respond well to nonverbal communication and are highly perceptive. Their reactions to clients’ actions can illuminate what drives people to certain actions or feelings. Another reason is horses are powerful animals that can elicit strong emotions in individuals.[4]

What happens during equine therapy?

In equine therapy, the horse is a supporter and mediator between the therapist and clients.

Some sources note that equines can become transitional objects, which provide comfort, security, and a sense of attachment, like a childhood blanket or favorite toy.[3] Transitional objects have the same purposes in psychotherapy, and in equine therapy, horses help individuals process difficult situations and emotions.

For example, a therapist might ask a client to interact with the horse in a specific way when feeling anxious. The person’s attachment to the horse increases their sense of safety and connection, streamlining their emotional processing.

How can equine therapy be used in addiction treatment?

Current research suggests that equine therapy has several benefits in addiction treatment, such as helping people with addiction:

  • Remain motivated to follow the treatment

  • Learn to set boundaries and form healthy relationships

  • Become empowered

  • Learn self-reflection

  • Learn responsibility and self-accountability

One study suggests that equine therapy helps people with substance use disorder (SUD) bond with horses, which allows them to learn how to form trust-based relationships in the future.[5] That outcome is important because people with SUD typically struggle with interpersonal relationships.[6]

The same study highlights the increased sense of empowerment that participants in EAS developed by learning to perform specific tasks with horses.[5] This increase in self-confidence and purpose is essential in addiction recovery because withdrawal symptoms, such as plummeting dopamine levels, can decrease people’s sense of self-worth.

As a result, they are likely to relapse to experience feel-good highs. However, equine therapy teaches participants how to achieve a sense of self-worth through meaningful engagement and productive tasks.

People in recovery will also likely experience depression, anxiety, and overall low mood as part of their withdrawal symptoms.[7] Equine therapy is shown to improve mood, helping participants become happier and calmer and, thus, navigate their withdrawal periods more easily.[8]

Participants using equine therapy as part of their addiction recovery treatment appreciate the practical aspect of the practice compared to talk therapy, which contributes to their overall sense of well-being. Subjects were looking forward to new sessions, thus being more motivated to continue addiction recovery and decreasing the likelihood of relapse.[8]

The science behind equine therapy

According to the CDC, people create solid connections with animals, particularly their pets. This connection results in specific health benefits:

  • Lower blood pressure

  • Healthier cholesterol and triglyceride levels

  • Feeling connected

  • Lower levels of anxiety and PTSD

  • Enhanced cognitive function

  • More opportunities to form interpersonal relationships with other people

  • More chances for outdoor exercise[9]

People with SUD can reap all these benefits, too, which decreases the impact of withdrawal symptoms and facilitates their recovery.

One study explains the science behind equine therapy by underlining the horses’ ability to help individuals create mentalization themes on cognitive-emotional and body-emotional levels. The study infers that this ability is similar to mother-child interactions.[3]

As a result, a growing body of research ascertains that equine therapy increases the positive and reduces the negative behaviors of people recovering from addiction.

Equine therapy for mental health

Equine therapy has been successfully used for mental health recovery, alleviating psychological withdrawal symptoms in people with an addiction disorder. This form of treatment can also help individuals without addiction issues.

One study has investigated the effects of therapeutic horseback riding on military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Three weeks of this therapy has shown a significant decrease in the subjects’ PTSD levels by 66.7%. After six weeks, their PTSD levels were 87.5% lower.

The study underlines that other markers followed in the right direction, although not gaining statistical significance during the study. These variables included emotion regulation, coping self-efficacy, and loneliness. As a result, this research suggests therapeutic horseback riding as an effective treatment for PTSD.[10]

Another study, while showing no significant difference in PTSD symptoms before and after equine therapy, noticed instead an increase in resilience levels.[11]

Separate research notes a correlation between equine therapy and decreased levels of aggressive behavior for chronic psychiatric inpatients.[12]