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Equine-Assisted Therapy for Addiction

When treating addiction, behavioral therapy is a standard intervention used to help patients learn healthy attitudes, behaviors, and skills to achieve and maintain abstinence.1

In recent years, there has been an increase in the types of approaches used for addiction therapy, including art, drama, and music therapy as alternative approaches to treating substance use disorders.2 Another approach is equine-assisted therapy, which has been included in some treatment programs and studied for its effectiveness.3

What Is Equine-Assisted Therapy?

Equine-assisted therapy, sometimes referred to as “horse therapy” or “horse-assisted therapy,” is an innovative psychotherapy approach that involves the use of horses and a series of therapeutic activities to treat a variety of physical and mental health disorders.4

The form of therapy dates to World War I, when horses were used to help comfort veterans, and then more formally when courses on equine therapy were taught at Stanford University School of Medicine.4

In its use as a complementary therapeutic approach for treating substance use disorders, equine-assisted therapy often involves activities such as caring for the horses, observing the behavior of the herd, and learning to ride.3 These activities can help patients learn about boundaries and trust and can promote better communication, focus, reliability, routine, and more.3

What Can Equine-Assisted Therapy Help Treat?

Equine-assisted therapy may be used as a complementary treatment for a variety of conditions, including many conditions that often co-occur with substance use disorders, such as:5

  • Aggression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Depression.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Trauma.

How Does Equine-Assisted Therapy Work?

Equine-assisted therapy varies depending on the specific program and a patient’s needs, but a session might involve taking care of a horse, observing and reflecting on the horse’s behaviors, and riding.3 Equine-assisted therapy is generally a complementary part of an overall treatment program that may also include a combination of behavioral therapy, medication, and other treatment approaches.3, 5

A theory of equine-assisted therapy is that horses are highly sensitive to human behavior and body language. Therefore, by watching how a patient interacts with a horse, a trained therapist can interpret the response of the horse and give the patient feedback, which can promote improved self-awareness.4

Equine-assisted learning can be used in rehab programs in various ways. One study looked at the patients of a treatment program that involved an individualized combination of behavioral therapy, medication, and specific goals related to employment and support as needed.3 Patients who also chose to add equine-assisted therapy did so through a referral from their primary program therapist but doing so was voluntary.3 The equine-assisted therapy consisted of 12 90-minute sessions, with the first 4 sessions spent getting to know the horses and the remaining 8 session activities determined on an individual basis by a person’s treatment team.3

Is Equine-Assisted Therapy for Substance Misuse Effective?

Several studies have investigated the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy for addiction. One study of veterans with substance use disorders found that equine therapy was associated with lower rates of anxiety, depression, and drug craving.6 Up to 50% of people who have a substance use disorder also struggle with a co-occurring mental health disorder.7 This suggests that equine-assisted therapy may provide benefits when used in tandem with other types of evidence-based treatment, such as behavioral therapy, medications, and support groups.7

An additional Norwegian study indicated that adolescents who participated in the equine-assisted therapy program stayed in treatment longer and completed the program at a higher rate than those who only participated in standard treatment without the equine-assisted therapy.3 The National Institute on Drug Abuse notes the importance of remaining in treatment for an adequate time. Research indicates that longer stays in treatment are associated with better outcomes than shorter treatment stays.8

Learn More About Addiction Treatment

There are a variety of treatment centers that offer holistic addiction treatment programs, but art equine-assisted therapy isn’t offered at every facility. If equine-assisted therapy is something you would like to incorporate into your recovery, contact the treatment center and inquire if this is a part of their curriculum.

As mentioned previously, equine-assisted therapy can complement an overall treatment program that may include evidence-based treatment such as behavioral therapy, medication, and more.3, 5

If you are ready to learn more about addiction treatment, American Addiction Centers (AAC) is ready to help. AAC is a leading provider of evidence-based addiction treatment with facilities across the U.S. You can call our free, confidential helpline at or get a text for more information about treatment, and easily verify your insurance by filling out the form below.


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