The Equine Experience: For a long time, the term equine therapy conjured images of children with physical and developmental disabilities riding horses. Perhaps I read an article or saw this on the news. However this image came to me, it certainly stayed for a long time—which is perhaps why I was not at first thrilled at the idea of adding equine therapy to our addiction treatment curriculum. I just couldn’t see how playing with horses would lead to significant breakthroughs in addiction recovery. So I contacted a local equine therapist to do a demonstration.

Then I saw.

A young man in treatment stands next to his horse and tells the group that nothing is bothering him today—everything is fine. At this statement, the horse leans away, resisting the young man’s touch. Another man, standing with his horse, addresses his visiting family and waxes poetic on how much he has learned in treatment and how ready he is to take on the world again. The horse all but high-tails it to the other end of the pen.

Horses—as it turns out—have excellent bullshit detectors. This is not so much a function of ancient mysticism as one of survival. As a large prey animal with few defensive skills, a horse’s only hope is to distinguish whose outside mannerisms match their inside emotions and motivations. After all, a timid puppy that wants to be friends and a wolf on the hunt take on the same posture when approaching: getting low, moving slowly, attempting to look small and unassuming. The only difference between the two is that inside the wolf’s unthreatening posture lies an intense energy and a ravenous hunger. The approaching wolf is not authentic. His outsides do not match his insides. And the ability to sniff out this incongruence is the reason horses are still around today.

So what does this have to do with recovery? As I reflect on my own experience, both personally and professionally, I can say with certainty that men and women caught up in the grips of addiction have lost the ability to be congruent. Sometimes, it’s because I was focusing on how I could manipulate situations and people around me to get what I wanted. Other times, it’s because I had so anesthetized myself with drugs and alcohol that any meaningful connection with my true emotions had long been lost. Learning to re-discover this connection to myself was difficult but paramount to my emotional recovery. Learning to trust God enough to share this newly found self with others? Equally as difficult and just as vital.

And so I have come around on the idea of equine therapy. Turns out that a horse’s ability to teach us to be authentic is an invaluable asset to an individual’s budding recovery. What I once thought was a nice recreational activity has now found a place in my book as a serious therapeutic intervention. I try not to be too miffed when they seem better at it than me.