Finding Healing with Horses

Equine assisted therapy experience

Picture this: six people, currently in substance abuse treatment, arrive at a 20-acre horse farm. They have come to enhance their recovery experience, and the facilitated activity they will participate in is called "Recovery Life Raft."

Addiction Recovery Equine-Assisted TherapyStanding in a large green pasture with a herd of 12 horses grazing around them, their first order of business is to select three things that they want to have in their recovery. Once those things have been identified, they are to select three horses from the herd and label each of the horses with these things. Then the members of the group and the three horses are to move to the Recovery Life Raft—an area marked off by four plastic cones—and remain there for at least 10 seconds.

The group members join together, and after some discussion, they choose: Fellowship; Higher Power; and Serenity; as the three things that they need most in recovery from addiction. After selecting which horse will represent each specific word, they make a plan to "divide and conquer," in order for all six people and the three horses to meet up at the Recovery Life Raft.

The two people assigned to bring "Higher Power" to the raft, turn to see that the horse they had labeled as such has already entered the Recovery Life Raft area. They comment on how amazing that is, and how appropriate—that God is waiting right there for them in their recovery. They go to stand by their horse's side and wait for their peers.

Equine-Assisted TherapyThe two who were to bring "Fellowship" into the raft easily walk along with the horse that they had labeled as Fellowship. They walk right over to the raft and join "Higher Power" and their other peers. They comment on how that feels just right, too. Fellowship comes easily to them, and they love the community they have created with each other.

However, the two people who were to bring "Serenity" to the raft are having a different experience. The small, white pony, labeled Serenity, stands in the far corner of the pasture, refusing to move. The peers pull, push, cajole, swear, yell, attempt bribery, but nothing will budge this pony. Instead, he just keeps eating slowly, as if completely unaffected by the people surrounding him.

The two peers call for the rest of their peers to come over and help. They all respond, leaving Fellowship and Higher Power in the raft area. Now there are six people surrounding the pony named Serenity. Pushing, pulling, sweating… next thing that is heard is: "Heck, he's only about 400 pounds! Let's pick him up and carry him over there!"

Equine-Assisted Therapy for AddictionThankfully, the peers all stop, look at each other, and realize what is happening. In their attempt to "get Serenity," they worked themselves up into the very opposite of serenity. They pause and take a deep breath. It is decided to go back to what they know, and so they walk back to their raft to stand with "Higher Power" and "Fellowship." And at that very moment—the moment of pausing and breathing and going back to their Recovery Life Raft—the little white pony named Serenity picks up his head from the grass and walks to the raft on his own.

For the past 16 years, individuals in recovery from addiction have been finding hope and healing through working with horses at the Acres for Life Therapy and Wellness Center in Chisago City, Minnesota. Utilizing the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) Model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning, participants in the program at Acres for Life work through whatever blocks, obstacles, and struggles are in their way and find solutions, new perspectives, and insights. And they are doing it in an inspirational and empowering way!

Designed to serve youth, adolescents, and adults in both an individual and group capacity, the EAGALA Model Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning can assist in a wide variety of areas such as: mental health and wellness, addiction recovery, and military, family, and community support services.

Using Equine-Assisted Therapy in Addiction TreatmentAlthough Acres for Life provides services for all these areas, the foundational focus is in the area of addiction recovery and co-occurring disorders treatment. Acres for Life has been a proud partner with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation since 2005. And the EAGALA model and its experiential approach has a proven-track record of effectively putting addiction recovery principles into action!

What this type of therapy does is bring learning to life. Each session is facilitated by a mental health professional, an equine specialist, and trained horses. The model is "solution oriented" and does not involve riding the horses nor is any horse experience necessary. Focusing on the specific treatment goals of the client (either as an individual or group), this therapeutic approach allows people to "create their story" through the metaphor of a horse and the external landscape—practicing their solutions in an emotionally safe environment. It provides the opportunity for people to have a hands-on, life-changing experience in their addiction recovery journey!

Lynn Moore, LADC, is co-founder of Acres for Life Therapy and Wellness Center, focusing on addiction recovery and mental health/wellness using experiential modalities. Lynn is advanced certified with EAGALA, the global standard for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.

Heather Jeffrey, CTC, has years of experience working with individuals, groups, families, and youths in a variety of experiential learning modalities. She is advanced certified with EAGALA and is pursuing her LADC/LPCC.

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