Equine-assisted therapy at
addiction treatment center
Horses are clear on their boundaries. They have no hidden agenda. They're
nonjudgmental and clear about their needs. So if a person tries to bully the horse, it won't work.
Trust, something many in recovery struggle with, is one simple life skill that extended care patients from the Jellinek Unit are learning in a new Equine-Assisted Therapy Program at Hazelden in Center City. It's a life lesson-a recovery lesson-that can hit home for some patients who struggle, with a little help from a horse.
"We had a female patient who was inclined to control everyone and everything; she was driven by fear and her approach to life was to bulldoze through, without realizing the impact on her behavior on others," said Virginia Murauskas, a counselor on the Jellinek Unit. "When this patient attempted to use these same tactics with one of the horses, she found out immediately that she had crossed the animal's boundaries. She backed off. Without question, she learned that her controlling behavior negatively impacts her relationships with others."
The lesson was invaluable to this woman, because she had struggled to put trust in a Higher Power, to understand her powerlessness, and to simply ask for help. Her experience helped her bring the Twelve Steps and its principles to life and put them into practice.
"The theory is that what is learned while interacting with the horse will translate to relationships with other people and a Higher Power," said Murauskas. "It's about letting go-a collaboration between she and the horse. It's a collaboration that can extend to she and a Higher Power."
Equine-assisted therapy is something that has been around for a long time. It has been successfully used for people with various mental health problems (such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders) and developmental issues, and it is being applied at other addiction treatment centers in the United States.
The program at Hazelden was developed by Lynn Moore, an addiction counselor who is certified in equine-assisted therapy. Moore has a degree in animal-assisted therapy and is one of a small number of equine therapy experts in the United States. She proposed the idea of equine therapy two years ago while working on her master's degree in addiction counseling at Hazelden's Graduate School of Addiction Studies. A team of Hazelden clinicians convened to shape the program; it included Moore, Murauskas, Paul Mladnick, Sue Hoisington, Mark Sheets, Bruce Larson, Patti Hall, Fran Williams, Candice Walker, Neva Sherman, Kerry Crain, Kelley Harrison, Jody Mutzenburger, Al Bradley, Cheryl Buechner and Dave Kulsrud.
Acres for Life is one of two facilities in Minnesota doing Twelve Step-based equine therapy, she says, and the only one in Minnesota that has developed a six-week equine program that integrates the Steps. She and her husband own Acres for Life, a stable where the therapy takes place just 10-15 minutes from Hazelden.
Moore says the program is "not about riding horses; rather, it's about interacting with horses on the ground so patients can learn more about themselves. Horses mirror human feelings," she says. "They give us immediate feedback through non-verbal cues, so people can take those cues and better understand themselves. It's not about horsemanship, it's about overcoming fears and frustrations-just by working with a horse."
Moore is quick to note that the program is simply one of many adjuncts to Hazelden's Twelve Step foundation of care. "Equine therapy is a way to bring all the pieces that have been learned at Hazelden together and practice those skills in a safe environment," she said. "It's a tool to apply the Twelve Steps."
The current program is for extended care patients who are deemed by the Hazelden clinical treatment team to be good candidates. A group of 10 patients spends six 90-minute sessions at the stable over an eight-week period. Each visit has a follow-up session, with patients and staff processing the work. The staff includes counselors, equine professionals, and Fran Williams, senior psychologist with Hazelden Mental Health Services. Patients complete weekly homework assignments to incorporate their equine experience into their recovery program.
Overcoming blocks to recovery
"Equine-assisted therapy is especially beneficial for clients who tend to intellectualize," said Moore. "It assists patients in 'getting out of their heads and into their hearts and bodies.' Intellectualizing is a major block to recovery for many individuals we see here. Being able to break through this is huge for many patients."
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 anymore. Through working with horses, feelings of fear, anger, resentment, sadness, loneliness, joy and peace are brought to surface."
The equine program, piloted in the spring of 2005, has been well received and is getting good results. Patients undergo a pre- and post-session assessment. The May-July 2006 group self-reported improvement in all nine areas that were measured, including significant improvement in four areas: the ability "to be open and easily access feelings and emotions, to trust others, to effectively work through new challenges, and ask for help in overcoming blocks and obstacles to recovery on a daily basis."
"At first I only saw horses," said one participant. "Now I can't look at a horse without thinking about recovery. Wednesdays will never be the same." Said another: "I confronted so many of my fears, and by doing so I learned so much to carry with me through my life and recovery." And another: "Asking for help was so foreign to me that it was not even an option in my problem solving algorithm."
Some patients not familiar with horses are skeptics at first, Moore said. But once they get with the horses, their doubts disappear.
"All I know is there is something magical about those animals," said one patient. "How they sense our feelings and react is remarkable. Not only are they beautiful and intelligent, they are insightful and gentle. It worked for me."
For more on equine-assisted therapy, send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
-by Marty Duda
Published in The Voice, Winter 2007