Equine Therapy for Addiction

Alcohol and substance abuse disorders affected 22 million people in the U.S. in 2015. Thankfully, many people find numerous options available to them and their families regarding professional help. Doctors often prescribe alternative therapies for addiction, such as music therapy, mindfulness and yoga practices, and art treatment. One form of treatment that has quickly risen in popularity in the medical world is equine therapy. Equine therapy offers patients a unique opportunity to address personal issues in a non-judgemental setting.

Equine therapy for addiction is not a stand-alone practice. Facilities usually pair it with more traditional forms of treatment. This includes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and group sessions. Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) differs from these traditional treatments. EAP offers addicts a physical and emotional responsibility for something other than themselves.

Overcoming drug and alcohol addiction can seem like an impossible task when you don’t know the different available assistance types. We can help you explore treatment options that may be right for you or your family. Please call 1-888-906-0952 for more information.

How Does Equine Therapy Work?

EAP uses trained horses to help patients learn to overcome drug addiction. Addicts learn to care for, groom, feed, and water horses to learn more about themselves and how to relate to the world around them. Sessions usually spread out over 12 weeks, with each lesson building upon the last. As patients begin to grow, therapists have the chance to evaluate emotional responses and praise for positive decisions. The more time and emotional investment a patient spends on a horse, the more therapeutic benefits they will receive. Patients often report a sense of calm and respect for the horse that cannot be easily achieved elsewhere.

Equine Therapy Provides a Change of Pace

Equine-assisted psychotherapy provides a physical release that other forms of therapy do not. Getting outside and walking with the horses becomes a dramatic and positive shift from a doctor’s office or a residential treatment home. Patients report feeling that working with their hands helped build rapport with the animal and made them feel useful. For some patients, such as teens who have issues with authority figures, EAP offers therapy that puts them in a positive responsibility position. Patients also start to see themselves as productive team members rather than simply as an addict who has a problem.

Equine Therapy Works Because of Mirroring

Part of the reason that equine therapy for drug abuse works well is the horses’ intuitive nature. These animals have proven to be remarkably attuned to human emotions. Patients must practice and demonstrate a calm and peaceful demeanor to bond with the horse. The horse will mirror any emotional state that the patient feels, including nervousness. The sheer size of a horse commands respect, which they will return if a patient earns it. Additionally, providing a horse with a safe and tranquil environment can create a refuge for patients from daily life.

How Equine Therapy is Used in Addiction Treatment

Equine therapy for addiction treatment is a supplemental form of treatment meant to complement more traditional therapy programs. It uses humanity’s age-old relationship with domesticated animals to empathize and relate to a horse. In addition to the horse, each session usually has a professional therapist present and an equine-based therapist. Instead of recounting past or current drug or alcohol issues with a patient, therapists only ask that patients set some goals for themselves. Therapists also want the patient to relate their experiences with the horse to their daily lives. Patients learn to show concern and care for something other than themselves. This creates stronger connections for them to treatment staff and other patients, as well.

Tangible Gains in Equine Therapy

Patients participating in EAP also benefit from physical changes brought on by interactions with therapy horses. The heart rate of most patients drops considerably. So, too, does cortisol (stress) levels soon after patients begin working with equines. As patients progress through EAP, a noticeable change begins to take place in personal relationships as well as:

  • Learning to trust yourself and others.
  • Establishing your sense of self-worth.
  • Limiting isolationist behavior and applying social skills to everyday situations.
  • Learning how to respect other people’s space and boundaries.
  • Enhancing communication with others.
  • Appropriate processing of raw emotions.

Additionally, most programs that offer equine therapy for drug abuse or alcohol addiction do not teach the patient how to ride the therapy horse.

EAP Sticks Better Than Other Forms of Therapy

Over an 18-month period of time, a study monitored what happened after introducing equine therapy to inpatient and outpatient care. The study found that patients who participated in EAP were significantly more likely to stay in treatment after 90 days than those who were not. This missed opportunity for critical care is associated with higher drug and/or alcohol relapse and other consequences. Pairing EAP with traditional substance abuse or alcohol treatment for teens has also shown an increase in patients who stay the course of therapy. In particular, equine-assisted therapy helped children ages 6-18 to process difficult or hurtful experiences and feelings. EAP is also less stressful for children than talk therapy or CBT. 

If you want help for addiction, give us a call at (888) 906-0952

Why Choose Horses?

Although many other therapies have various animal-assisted programs, including dogs, cats, and birds, EAP remains one of the most popular forms of animal-assisted therapies. Horses provide a unique experience regarding therapy because of their gentle and intuitive nature. As prey animals, horses easily become acutely attuned to the environments around them. Horses can detect the slightest change in your demeanor or attitude towards them, and they will act accordingly. If you approach a therapy horse with fear, they will, in turn, be fearful of you. Likewise, if you present yourself to a horse with respect and with relaxed body language, they should quickly reflect your sense of peace.

Horses Require More Work Than Dogs and Cats

EAP helps patients overcome addiction due to the amount of care a horse requires. It makes the patient focus on something outside of themselves and their addiction. Feeding, brushing, and cleaning up after a horse can take up many hours in a day. But patients also spend these hours repairing emotional trauma, rebuilding brain and body connections, and restoring self-confidence. Caring for a horse helps build a bond between the horse and the patient, inspiring empathy, respect, and commitment. Patients do not have to talk about their drug or alcohol problems during equine-assisted therapy but instead live within the “here and now” moment by taking care of these noble creatures.

EAP in Comparison to Other Treatments

Although there haven’t been many U.S. studies conducted on exactly how equine therapy is used in addiction treatment, much anecdotal evidence exists. Most EAP programs start with staff who saw the treatment in action for themselves. Due to these factors, it is not clearly known if the horses themselves promote positive outcomes in treatment. Behavioral changes could be brought about simply because patients spend time outside, engage in physical activity, or get to work with different types of therapists. One 2015 study involving in-hospital psychiatric patients compared EAP to regular mental health treatment, canine-assisted therapy, and social skills-based treatment. It found that violent behavior decreased most with the animal-supported therapies and that of the two, EAP worked the best.

Who and How Does EAP Help?

Nearly all people who struggle with substance abuse disorder can benefit from EAP. Equine-Assisted therapy has even been used in large groups and family settings. When applied in conjunction with more conventional forms of treatments such as talk therapy, EAP can be custom-tailored to fit patients of all ages. Because of humans’ long history with horses, most people respond to them with awe and respect. Even people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction are not impervious to such a majestic creature’s universal draw.

EAP for Children and Teens

Children and teens with addiction problems have greatly benefited from EAP. In particular, young children and kids who experienced physical abuse or neglect benefited the most in a study on equine-assisted therapy. For these kids, opening up emotionally can be a challenging process. Additionally, it is known that teens often deal with normal hormonal changes that seem to cause irritability and resistance to perceived authority figures. EAP proved to help improve the communication between therapists and children that is critical to a successful recovery.  Children can also begin to address a range of issues such as:

  • Proper impulse control
  • Feelings of self-confidence
  • Social competence
  • Appropriate assertiveness
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Trust in themselves and others
  • Emotional attentiveness
  • Empathy for others
  • Improvement and maintenance of interpersonal relationships


As more of our veterans complete their military tours, many return home with psychological issues like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD can cause negative flashbacks, nightmares, severe emotional reactions, physical outbursts, feelings of hopelessness, and more. For veterans and other people who already experienced PTSD, the likelihood of developing a substance abuse problem climbs much higher than those who have not. One 2018 study showed a significant decrease in PTSD symptoms among veterans who participated in a 6-week horseback riding program. Participants showed an increase in their ability to self-cope with symptoms and to control emotional regulation. They also reported an improved psychological outlook, including more motivation, self-efficiency, and courage. 

See if equine therapy is right for you.

Help Finding an EAP Program

Many different kinds of addiction treatment programs exist to address all types of people and families. Depending on the type of addiction or trauma experienced, they may benefit from alternative therapy options in addition to more traditional ones. Although you may feel lost in trying to secure the right type of therapy for yourself or a loved one, we can help you. Equine therapy for drug abuse or alcohol addiction is utilized by mental health professionals more and more each day. We will help you research and find an appropriate EAP program and navigate the process of enrolling. If you consider using EAP as a viable option for substance abuse treatment, please reach out to us today at 1-888-906-0952 for more info.

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Medically Reviewed by:

Dr. Patricia Sullivan, MD MPH

About the Author 

Dani Horn

Dani Horn is an Arizona native and graduate of Glendale Community College. Her work has appeared in Raising Arizona Kids magazine and The Arts Beacon digital journal, and she has worked on numerous Valley short film projects and music video shoots. She can currently be found writing about recovery, hanging with her 2 fantastic kids, or taking photos of her outfits for Instagram. Through ABTRS, she hopes to help others start the journey to sobriety that she herself began over a year and a half ago.

Are you interested in seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addiction? Call us today to find a treatment program that works for you.