The Equine Assisted Therapy Program at Cold Creek Behavioral Health is a key component of our comprehensive treatment program. Both Residential and Intensive Outpatient Program clients participate in our Equine Therapy program. During sessions each client works one-on-one with their own horse. Residential clients attend weekly sessions. During and after each session clients and staff review their progress with our Equine Therapist and their counselor. Clients also complete homework assignments that integrate their equine experience into their addiction treatment program.
The Equine-assisted therapy program at Cold Creek meets or exceeds the EAGALA – Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association and EFMHA – Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association certification standards. These groups are committed to setting the standard of professional excellence in how horses and humans work together to improve the quality of life and mental health of individuals, families and groups worldwide.
What is Equine Therapy?
Equine-assisted therapy is an established and successful experiential therapy that has gained recognition as an effective treatment for addiction, and a wide range of mental health problems. EAP is an experiential therapy where clients learn about themselves by participating in horse activities, primarily groundwork, and evaluating behaviors and emotions elicited throughout the process.
EAP sessions at Cold Creek are unique because they are facilitated by an equine therapist who is dually credentialed as a licensed substance abuse counselor (LSAC) and certified horse professional. This rare combination is referred to as an equine professional. Equine professionals speed the therapy process because they can provide training and therapy without time consuming consultation.
Equine sessions center around offering activities that require clients to utilize a specific skill such as assertiveness, verbal and non-verbal communication, problem solving, creative thinking, leadership, maintaining a positive attitude, relationship building, confidence, and teamwork. EAP is effective in treating mental health and human development needs including substance abuse, ADD, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, abuse issues, communication needs and relationship issues.
Equine-assisted therapy is especially beneficial for clients who tend to intellectualize. This helps these clients to listen more to their hearts and not live so much in their heads. “Intellectualizing is a major block to recovery for many individuals. Being able to break through this is significant for many clients.
Equine therapy helps patients get in touch with their emotions and feelings. Many patients have avoided feeling emotions for so long that they don’t know how to understand their feelings anymore. Through working with horses, feelings of fear, anger, resentment, sadness, loneliness, joy and peace are brought to surface.” These feelings are then addressed in the moment when they have the greatest impact.
Horses offer several advantages, their size offers a perfect opportunity for someone to overcome fear and develop confidence. Accomplishing a task involving the horse, in spite of those fears, creates confidence and provides for wonderful metaphors for dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations.
Unlike people, horses have clear boundaries, they are not judgmental, they have no hidden agenda, and they don’t have expectations or prejudices. They don’t care about your looks, and are indifferent to your station in life. The horse lives in the moment, responds by behaving without assumption or criticism. So if a person tries to intimidate the horse, it won’t work. Engagement on such a level can be extraordinarily powerful for many people.
Horses are social animals, with distinct personalities, attitudes and moods. Working with them and caring for them requires effort –there’s no easy way out. No quick fix. Most importantly, said Kersten, horses have the ability to mirror exactly what human body language is telling them. People complain that the horse is stubborn or antagonistic. “But the lesson to be learned is that if they change themselves, the horses respond differently.” And that’s a lesson well worth learning.
Horses require work, whether in caring for them or working with them. In an era when immediate gratification and the “easy way” are the norm, horses require people to be engaged in physical and mental work to be successful, a valuable characteristic in all aspects of life.
Equine assisted therapy is a classic example of a experiential therapy. As clients work with horses they must communicate in a very specific way to get the horse to respond. Working with such a large animal using a new language can be stressful. During equine therapy clients are often focused on the task or activity at hand — rather than on the therapeutic aspect of the experience — they are more likely to behave in a more unguarded and genuine manner. As a result therapists are able to identify and work through issues that could have taken weeks identify.
Our clients indicate that their experience with equine therapy in Utah has a profound impact on their recovery. Dee Marble, who runs the Equine Therapy program at Cold Creek, considers it a gift to work with clients as they work to resolve difficult issues that have troubled them for much of their lives.
Equine Therapy Story
The following is an excerpt from a story by Carma Wadley about a program for equine assisted therapy that was published in the Deseret News (Utah) on July 27, 2000:
The assignment seemed fairly easy: Two five-member teams each had to get their horse to jump over a board placed across two buckets in the center of the arena.
Then Greg Kersten spelled out the conditions: they could not touch the horse, they could not bribe or simulate bribing of the horse, they could not use anything that was outside the arena, they could not use any ropes or halters and they could not talk to other team members. Still, he stressed, that’s only five. The teams had one minute to plan a strategy and then three minutes to get the horse to jump over the board. Team No. 1 placed its members in strategic locations, tried a lot of hand-waving, whistling, moving around. The horse, a white stallion named Mister, was not interested.
The frustration level was building. “This horse is retarded,” muttered one team member. “Cows move faster than horses,” said another, “we’ll never get him to do it.” Kersten called a time-out. “Stop and think a minute,” he said. “You are trying the same things over and over again. That’s a good definition of insanity: doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results”
Finally, the teams realized they had been focusing only on what they couldn’t do instead of what they could do. They could enlist the help of other people standing inside the arena. They could move the horses into a round holding pen that was part of the arena. They could move the jump in front of the door of the pen. They could complete their task.
So, Kersten asked, what resulted in success? Teamwork. Making the boundaries smaller, more defined and learning from the mistakes of others. A change of attitude. “Going from the idea of ‘stupid horse’ to looking for creative solutions made a big difference.”
Addicts, he says, are preoccupied with satisfying their own desires. “They’re basically operating from a narcissistic point of view. If they’re going to work successfully with the horse they’re going to have to communicate, interact and engage with another creature.”
“Another psycho-therapeutic component of equine therapy is identifying the anthropomorphic tendencies that occur – people applying human qualities to the animal.” If the horse does not listen to the client or walks away, they might say that the horse is just like other people in their life, whom they believe do not like or listen to them. This creates an opportunity for therapeutic dialog. When the client comes to understand that the horse neither likes nor dislikes them, but was simply responding to their lack of communication; the therapist can help them understand their perception of dislike was merely a thinking error. These assumptions and thinking errors are what keep people sick. When clients do not communicate with others, they tend to isolate themselves, which causes loneliness. Loneliness, fear and anxiety are all triggers for addictive behavior. Equine assisted psychotherapy is a powerful tool in helping to identify and overcome these triggering tendencies.
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