How Horse Riding Helps Addiction Treatment & Recovery

When Susan E. Conley took up horseback riding, she had no idea that the activity — and the horses themselves — would play an integral part to her codependency recovery. She highlights five ways that equines help addicts and codependents alike: emotional congruence; good boundaries; learning how to respond, rather than react; perspective; and trusting your instincts.

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ARTICLE SUMMARY: Horses can help us develop emotional congruence, good boundaries, responses rather than reaction, perspective, and instinct. More on how to apply this to recovery here.


By Susan E Conley

Getting Started

When I started riding horses, I was 41, going on 42 years old and had never been near an equine in my life. The closest I came was standing near to the carriage horses that congregated on Central Park South, daring a pat now and then until their drivers chivvied me off as it was clear I was not a potential client.

I took up the sport due to my burgeoning codependency recovery: having left my marriage to a substance abuser, I decided to do something for myself. Never mind that it seemed as precarious an undertaking as trying to ‘make’ someone clean and sober; I took a notion to do it and unexpectedly found a hobby that helped me get healthy in mind, body and spirit.

A World of Healing

I soon found that many of the behaviors that I employed on a daily basis were going to get me into serious trouble with the animals; the equestrian lifestyle, in many ways, is antithetical to the codependent lifestyle, or indeed any addiction lifestyle.

For example, in The Tao of Equus, Linda Kohanov speaks of ‘emotional congruence’, of being in alignment with your mount, a state which can only come into being when the rider is in line with herself. In my case, being congruent meant:

  • Not lying.
  • Not fudging.
  • Not making up stories about the way things should have been, could have been, or ought to have been if only someone in my life hadn’t abused substances.

5 Ways Horses Help With Addiction

The more time I spent around horses, the more I realized that I was not only learning how to ride, I was also learning how to be the sort of person I wanted to be: clear, calm, a person who was becoming emotionally stronger as well as physically.

I guessed my improvement had to be down to the horses, because that was the only new thing in my life, but surely that was impossible?

It is completely possible, and there’s a whole world of healing that employs horses as therapeutic partners, covering client bases from children struggling with autism and ADD, to people of all ages with learning and physical challenges. It’s a fascinating field that’s growing by leaps and bounds, but how does being around a horse help us with our issues?

Here are five ways that horses can become a healing touchstone for addicts in recovery. And don’t worry: you don’t have to ride the horse to reap the rewards.

#1 Body Language

To refer to Kohanov’s example of congruence, you can’t fake anything around a horse.

You may think you’re covering up your feelings, but a horse can spot your true mood a mile away.

As herd animals, their safety is inextricably linked with being in harmony with their herd mates. Should a predator approach, it is vital the herd be able to move as one in order to protect the group. They achieve homeostasis as a form of protection, and extends to the humans who would interact with them.

Philippe D’Helft, a practitioner with EAGALA, Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, explains. “Horses are hyper vigilant and have constant awareness of each other and their place in the herd, and they apply the same to us,” he says. “They are constantly watching our body language, our breathing, the way we move and then they mirror that. And then depending on the way we behave, they react a certain way.”

A 2017 study via the University of Sussex involved 30 horses and examined the animals’ reactions to human body language. Humans who approached in a non-threatening, submissive manner, with arms and legs held close to the body and in a slight slouch drew the horse towards them; those who rocked up with chests puffed out and arms in an aggressive posture such as hands on hips or elbows out were avoided by the animals.

Horses are well able to pick up much subtler clues, and will mirror back to you what’s going on inside, even if you think you’ve got your outside sorted. You’re either a potential herd member, or you’re threat.

#2 Good Boundaries

Failure to set good boundaries when working with horses is dangerous, to both human and animal. They are much bigger and stronger than we are and it is paramount to ensure the horse respects you and your space. Get your foot stepped on one time by a 1200 pound creature, and you learn fast.

However, there’s a difference between being aggressive and assertive.

As shown above, aggressiveness sets you up in the horse’s mind as a predator and they will do everything in their power to remove themselves from your presence. If you are assertive, you set yourself up as a leader and this also dovetails nicely with the herd mentality. In the interests of self-preservation, a horse is always happy enough to defer to a stronger creature.

If you can be that strong for a horse, you can be that strong for yourself.

#3 Response, Not Reaction

Quite a lot of horseback riding and working with horses on the ground is repetitive. You do the same things over and over, and yet due to variable conditions — weather, your health, the horse’s health, the instructors mood, your mood, the horse’s mood — little things can have great impact.

In the past, changes outside of my control used to send me into a tailspin. I’d react in the snap of a finger, and start fixing things before I knew whether they were actually broken or not, or most importantly, whether it was my business to do so.

Horses are sentient beings and they are always reacting to their environment. In order to stay safe around them, we must learn to respond to their reactions; that is, we begin to learn to read a situation and make conscious decisions how to behave.

Because many of our tasks around the horse, from grooming to show jumping, require a set process, it allows us to become more aware of ourselves in the situation and gives us the opportunity to build our own lexicon of responses.

We become able to assess, with clarity and calm, what the best solution in a given situation is and to put it into gentle action.

This was a real watershed for me in my own recovery: I began to see that I had choices, that I was able to be clearheaded and to make decisions based on evidence, and not old coping mechanisms or distorted feelings.

#4 Perspective

EAGALA specializes in training psychology and horse professionals to work as teams, in order to apply techniques to help all sorts of populations, including people in addiction recovery.

Sometimes when we’re deep in our challenges, we can’t see the wood for the trees – or the feed buckets for the traffic cones.

D’Helf cites an example in which a client was asked to use simple props – that feed bucket, those traffic cones, along with rings, lightweight poles and mounting blocks – and build areas in a riding arena that symbolize certain aspects of their lives. The horse is then set at liberty in the arena, and the instructor and the client pay attention to where the horse goes… or doesn’t.

“We’d say that we noticed that the horses went with them in other areas that they’ve built, and were happy to share those spaces with them, except for one, and the client will say, ‘Well, it’s generally not a great place to be, nobody wants to go there with me,’” he explains. “We’d ask what the space represented and the answer was ‘The bookies’. The fact that they see it for themselves is very powerful.”

#5 Trusting Your Instincts

As a codependent, I never trusted myself, even the evidence of my own eyes and experience.

Horses have helped me recover and build upon my ability to believe that I can trust myself to know what’s correct, what I have still to learn and work on.

I began to know, even as my butt hit the saddle, how I was going to get on with a horse. I began to learn how to be as gentle with myself as I was with a horse. I learned when to say ‘no’ (to a horse that was too frisky for me), and when to say ‘yes’ (even though I was a tiny bit nervous.) I learned that I would always be learning, which resulted in humility, a cornerstone of 12-step recovery. Humbled before the horse, I paradoxically became stronger in myself, and continue to grow and heal every day I am around them.

Your Questions

Do you have any questions for Susan? Perhaps you’d like to share an experience about your work with horses? Please leave your questions in the comments section at the end. We try to respond to all real life comments with a personal and prompt reply.

About the Author: Susan E Conley is the author of Many Brave Fools: A Story of Addiction, Dysfunction, Codependency… and Horses, available now from Follow Susan on Twitter and Instagram @manybravefools.
About the author
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