The isolation resulting from substance dependence is deeply damaging. 12
Step programs acknowledge the importance of connection in fellowship and
the Steps. Yet social connection remains difficult for many recovering people.
Adding a history of alcoholism in the original family and this task become more
challenging. Equine-Assisted Therapy is a uniquely helpful treatment
for these challenges.
Research shows that attachment to original caregivers–parents, foster
parents, or guardians — is critical to many developmental tasks including:
self-regulation, homeostasis, brain development, developing sense of self, and
forming relationships between self and the world .
The caregiver bond provides skills needed to manage all tasks until the infant brain
develops enough to accomplish these skills on its own. That is the bad news for
people who have had ruptures in the original caregiving relationship like those
with alcoholic parents or those who have been placed in unstable foster care
situations. The good news is that the brain is “plastic,” that is, it has the ability to
regenerate significantly given the right circumstances even in adulthood. There
are certain qualities within a therapeutic relationship that enhance this healing
which are uniquely present in Equine Therapy.
Infancy is a time of nonverbal knowing. Wordlessly, a parent knows his or her child’s
state of being, needs and wants. Wordlessly, a child relates his distress and/or comfort.
Wordlessly, a lifetime bond develops. These silent communications occur so rapidly that
words would actually slow down the process. Equine-Assisted Therapy is uniquely
suited to assist in healing a broken nonverbal bond.
Since horses have a smaller cortex (the part of the brain that gives us language skills among
other things) and an expanded intuition, they operate from the right brain, the home of
instinct and intuition. In making contact with a horse during Equine Therapy, we shift from our
usual left brain state of being into the right brain instinctive/intuitive mode. This more
closely mimics the original state of being with caregivers than the traditional
verbal relationship between therapist and client.
The transition to right brain experiencing can be difficult initially as clients try to interpret
what the horse is doing from their left brain mode. When a client “interprets” what
the horse is doing during Equine-Assisted Therapy, they are projecting their own feelings
onto the horse. Often people will say “he doesn’t like me,” or “she is afraid of me.” Because
horses take their environment at face value and respond solely on what will facilitate survival,
they lack the subjective judgmentalism we are so good at. As we evaluate the horses’ physical
cues, we can interpret their state of being with some accuracy.
Equine Therapy allows the client to see themselves, creating a feedback loop which would be
impossible in talk therapy. Here the client is allowed to hear their own projected story and then
focus on their feelings, their needs, and their wants in light of that story. This is often the missing
piece from the original caregiving relationship — the luxury of focusing on ones’ own experience.
Research shows that humans are biologically predisposed to seek out and sustain physical
contact and emotional connection with certain “others” upon whom they come to rely.
This touch in the first few months of life actually establishes the neurological connections
which will develop into an ability to manage emotions later in life. Research suggests
that the urge to touch animals is biological and may trace back to human-wolf relationships.
This “seeking” of touch is hard wired in us and in other mammals as well–think of your pet
coming to you for contact.
It has been discovered that the body’s endogenous opioid system drives this need. When
we are socially isolated, our levels of endogenous opioids fall which triggers the need to seek
social contact. For addicts, the natural ebb and flow of endogenous opioids is interrupted.
In making contact with animals, that urge for connection is rekindled. Therapeutic interaction
with a horse inevitably involves touch. Even people who are deeply afraid of horses
will work hard on their fears in order to be in contact. When asked what they might want from
an equine interaction people will often report “I want to be able to touch him” or “I want to be
close to her.” Certainly this tool is infrequently used in traditional talk therapy settings as it
One of the advantages of having horses available for this touch seeking is that there is no
illusion during Equine-Assisted Therapy that the horse will play a role such as parent, enabler or
spouse. While all of these emotions may be visited, it is clear to participants that the horse will
stay behind and be a horse. This allows the richness of touch with effective containment and
boundaries. Further, a client who is in contact with a horse may also feel needed by the horse.
As the horse indicates a desire to be touched, clients are awakened to their ability to give. For
newly recovering addicts and alcoholics, this might be the first time in years that they have the
experience of having something to offer. The process awakens compassion.
For those addicts who have lost the sense of joy, re-engaging in natural play can be of help.
Movement is fundamental in reprogramming the pleasure pathway. The movement of play
combined with laughter is even more effective in evoking the emotions which emerge from play
— joy, glee, happiness and playfulness itself. Horses play naturally among themselves for no
other “purpose” than to play. They recognize a playful intention and will join in the game. In
Equine-Assisted Therapy, we can dance with horses, run with horses, dress them up, paint,
make games with each other, and laugh. Even a very “unserious” session offers healing of
the joy pathway.
Emotion and motor action are essential for a sense of self to develop. We only recognize
changes in our own states of being based in bodily sensation and movement. There is a map of
the bodily state in the right brain which facilitates this process. Moving in the world helps us
know who we are because we can have our own felt sense of what is occurring within us. This
gives us an inner felt sense of what is going on with others. Without this sense of self and
understanding of other, social bonding would be impossible. Horses’ entire understanding of
their world comes from an intuitive and instinctual perception which is gained through their
body and senses during Equine Therapy.
When engaged in Equine-Assisted Therapy we move toward that way of metabolizing the world.
We watch the horses and begin to have a sense of what they are feeling, what they are
demonstrating, what their intention is. The equine work wakes up this bodily sensing which
drugs and alcohol have so effectively numbed. Additionally, because we are outdoors and
engaged in movement, the information we are receiving through our senses is quite different
than in alcoholic isolation or drug related activities which are often too stimulating or violent or
totally numbing. We have an opportunity to see nature and the beautiful horses, feel the breeze
or the softness of a horse muzzle, hear the trees rustling, the horse nickering, the birds singing,
our heart pounding, feel energy in our arms and legs and smell the horsey smells of leather,
manure and hay. Each of these experiences offers a possibility for reprogramming the addicted
brain and awakening the sensitive heart and soul — the Self — of the alcoholic/addict.
The gifts that the horses give go beyond brain healing. In our interactions we discover an honest
and nonjudgmental possibility of relationship. We interact and are effected but also effect the
other. This profound place of tenderness is a healing matrix that is similar to meditation or tai
chi. The difference, however, is that the healing occurs in relationship and within the container
of the human therapist and group. These connections, while fleeting, offer a real felt experience
of self and other, of compassion, of affection and bonding, and of trust which are carried into life.