The use of horses for therapeutic reasons dates back to Ancient Greece; however, it wasn’t until 1952 that horses became recognized for their health benefits in the modern world, when Liz Hartel won a silver medal for horseback riding at the Helsinki Olympics and attributed her recovery from polio to horseback riding. Shortly after, therapeutic riding centers began arising throughout Europe, the US, and Canada. In 1969, a riding association for the handicapped was developed in the US.

After the benefits of animal-assisted therapy became known, people recognized the positive impact animals can have on various conditions, including rehabilitation from drug and alcohol addiction. While various other animals are used in therapy, horses and dogs are often the most commonly used.

Equine-Assisted and Canine-Assisted Therapies

What Are Equine-Assisted and Canine-Assisted Therapies?

Equine-assisted therapy assists clients with emotional growth. It’s a form of therapy that utilizes horses to help with a wide range of conditions, including drug and alcohol addiction. It’s also beneficial for those who suffer from co-occurring disorders, as this therapy has shown success in treating various conditions, such as:

  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia

Horses are frequently used in therapy because they possess the ability to respond directly to the client and immediately after the person exhibits certain feelings or behaviors. Horses pick up on unspoken feelings, and clients can begin to see how their demeanor affects the horse, allowing clients to improve communication skills and learn how to manage their often turbulent emotions.

While many people in therapy may have difficulty connecting with other people due to a fear of being judged, they don’t have the same fears when dealing with horses. Equine-assisted therapy can offer clients a safe space where they can form a relationship with another living being that is free from the baggage associated with human relationships.

While some equine-assisted therapy programs may involve riding horses, most often clients primarily care for the horses. Grooming and basic horse care are the primary activities of the therapy.

Canine-assisted therapy promotes healing through the use of dogs. The theory behind the therapy is that dogs are comforting and nonjudgmental. Clients can form bonds with the dogs, sharpening their communication skills and learning to identify and express their feelings in therapy. Simply being with a dog has been shown to lower levels of anxiety and stress, and this can be vital to growth in therapy.

Those who participate in canine-assisted therapy are able to give the dog commands as well as walk, pet, and play with the dog. After a person interacts with the pet, a therapist may evaluate the interaction and use the information gathered to help the individual apply the skills to other areas of life. This therapy has been around since the mid-1970s, and it is successfully used in hospitals, prisons, mental health facilities, and rehabilitation centers.

What Are the Benefits of These Therapies?

Canine-assisted and equine-assisted therapies have been shown to decrease stress in participants. Those who struggle with depression may experience elevated moods after therapy sessions. In addition to improving communication and social skills, these therapies also improve physical fitness and can boost self-esteem as participants form strong bonds with animals who accept them just the way they are.

Participating in animal-assisted therapy helps clients to learn appropriate ways to treat themselves and others. They get to feel unconditional love and affection, and learn or relearn to nurture another living thing. The therapy can greatly reduce feelings of loneliness and poor self-worth.

Animals like dogs and horses often mimic people’s feelings, which helps clients learn to manage their emotions. If a client is feeling frustrated or angry, they may see the effect that has on the dog or horse. In essence, this process can help clients learn how to acknowledge and work through their feelings in a more productive manner.

Other benefits of canine-assisted and equine-assisted therapy include:

  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Elevated mood
  • Fewer mood fluctuations
  • Better physical fitness levels
  • Heightened well-being
  • Enhanced self-esteem
  • Better ability to set and respect boundaries
  • Improved communication skills
  • Motivation to remain in treatment

The Effectiveness of Animal-Assisted Therapy

An entry in the American Journal of Clinical Care (AJCC) evaluated 11 studies regarding animal-assisted therapy, all of which were focused on canine-assisted therapy. The sample sizes varied from 10 to 424 participants. All of the studies consisted of people who were alert, spoke English, and had no history of developmental delays or aggressive behavior. Generally, the visits with a dog were limited to 10-20 minutes. After the visits, participants’ moods and neurohormonal levels were monitored. The study concluded that animal therapy has the potential to boost mood, relax participants, give clients a sense of control, and help with communication. The animals also reduced participants’ anxiety levels in many cases.

A study analyzed by the Journal of Lancaster General Hospital found that animal-assisted therapy affects stress levels and blood pressure readings positively. The study was comprised of 218 participants in psychiatric hospitals, and the results suggested that animal-assisted therapy is more beneficial than other stress management techniques. Participants had lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure levels after the therapy. The results also revealed animals have the potential to decrease the following:

The University of York’s Centre for Reviews and Dissemination cited research resulting from various studies that evaluated the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy. The studies were comprised of individuals who enjoyed animals and who had an alcohol or drug abuse issue or a mental health disorder. The results of the analysis concluded that animals may have a positive impact on blood pressure, heart rate, mood, and anxiety levels. Several of the studies found that using an animal in therapy has the potential to decrease depression. Improved mood and lower rates of depression help to sustain ongoing recovery.

  • Depression
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Pain
  • Pulse rates

A Supplemental Therapy

A Supplemental Therapy

While equine-assisted and canine-assisted therapy programs do appear to result in positive results in people recovering from substance use disorders, these therapies are meant to supplement, not replace, traditional rehabilitation programs. Those who participate in canine-assisted or equine-assisted therapy may improve their moods, reduce their anxiety levels, and improve their communication skills, which all have the potential to decrease their desire for drugs or alcohol and boost overall wellbeing. Generally, animal-assisted therapies do not address the underlying causes behind the addiction, however, and these issues need to be dealt with in traditional therapy.

A comprehensive addiction treatment program will have traditional therapy as the backbone of the treatment approach. This therapy will generally come in the form of both individual and group sessions, giving clients a balanced approach to addiction recovery. In addition, complementary therapies, such as equine-assisted or canine-assisted therapy, may be offered to round out a customized treatment program.