A Jump Forward in Lasting Recovery

“The use of horses to overcome obstacles has allowed me to better visualize the process of thinking through problems,” says Emily, a client at Refuge. “There is an activity where you work to get the horse to step over an obstacle. The horse I was working with did not want to move.

I became very focused on what wasn’t working — the horse wasn’t moving — but with prompting from the counselor, I tried turning and looking where I wanted to go and took a big purposeful step. The horse responded instantly by following me. I know I do the same thing in my recovery.

I get focused on the problem instead of taking that energy and investing it in a solution.”

For Whatley, equine therapy isn’t just therapy. “What we do out here with the horses is skill building,” she says. “Our goal is to give you more tools for your tool-box so that when conflict, anxiety or temptations come up, you have the tools to handle them in a positive way. We set up activities with the horses that create understanding and the opportunity to practice new ways of doing things.”

One powerful activity is called the Maze of Life.

The arena where clients work with the horses is filled with props such as cones, barrels and poles. Clients are asked to create a path with the props available to them that represents the life they hope to have. The participants then lead the horse through the path. Participants are halfway through the program at this point, so they are comfortable with the horses. They have built strong relationships with them and usually complete the task with ease.

The group is then asked to do the task again, only this time, something in the environment changes. As the group is walking the horse through the maze, a large bucket of food is dumped in the middle of the arena. Typically, the horse instantly runs to the food. What was, just a moment ago, a simple task is now incredibly challenging. Nonetheless, after some effort, the clients are always able to successfully complete the maze even with the temptation of the food in the arena.

When Whatley asks participants about how they kept the horse on the path and away from temptation, most clients offer similar responses: “To get the horse back on the path, we had to be more intentional than we were before. We had to work better together as a team and use each other as a support system. There is no way for just one person to keep the horse away from the temptation. We had to use all the resources — in this case a harness and rope — around us to keep the horse on track. We had to be willing to ask for help. We made barriers between the horse and the temptation.”

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