Gail Hromadko


The isolation resulting from substance dependence is deeply damaging. 12 Step programs acknowledge the importance of connection in fellowship and the Steps. Yet social connection remains difficult for many recovering people. Adding a history of alcoholism in the original family and this task become more challenging. This article will explore how equine facilitated psychotherapy (EFP) is a uniquely helpful treatment for these challenges.

Research shows that attachment to original caregivers–parents, foster parents, or guardians — is critical to many developmental tasks including: self-regulation, homeostasis, brain development, developing sense of self, and forming relationships between self and the world .The caregiver bond provides the skills and practice needed to manage all of these tasks until the infant brain develops enough to accomplish these skills on its own. That is the bad news for people who have had ruptures in the original caregiving relationship like those with alcoholic parents or those who have been placed in unstable foster care situations. The good news is that the brain is “plastic,” that is, it has the ability to regenerate significantly given the right circumstances even in adulthood. There are certain qualities within a therapeutic relationship that enhance this healing which are uniquely present in EFP.

1. Nonverbal Intuitively Felt Communication: Infancy is a time of nonverbal knowing. Wordlessly, a parent knows his or her child’s state of being, needs and wants. Wordlessly, a child relates his distress and/or comfort. Wordlessly, a lifetime bond develops. These silent communications occur so rapidly that words would actually slow down the process. Horse therapists are uniquely suited to assist in healing a broken nonverbal bond. Horses have a smaller cortex — the part in humans that gives us language skills among other things — and an expanded intuition. They operate from the right brain, the home of instinct and intuition. In making contact with a horse, we shift from our usual left brain state of being into the right brain instinctive/intuitive mode. This more closely mimics the original state of being with caregivers than the traditional verbal relationship between therapist and client. The transition to right brain experiencing can be difficult initially as clients try to interpret what the horse is doing from their left brain mode. When a client “interprets” what the horse is doing, they are most often projecting their own rich material onto the horse. Often people will say “he doesn’t like me,” or “she is afraid of me.” Because horses take their environment at face value and respond solely on what will facilitate survival, they lack the subjective judgmentalism we are so good at. As we evaluate the horses’ physical cues, we can interpret their state of being with some accuracy. This allows the client to see themselves. This feedback loop would be impossible in talk therapy. Here the client is allowed to hear their own projected story and then focus on their feelings, their needs, and their wants in light of that story. This is often the missing piece from
the original caregiving relationship — the luxury of focusing on ones’ own experience. Human therapists will feel a need to respond verbally at some point and certainly cannot contain their own judgments perfectly even with years of experience.

2. Social Touch: Recent research shows that humans are biologically predisposed to seek out and sustain physical contact and emotional connection with certain “others” upon whom they come to rely. This touch in the first few months of life actually establishes the neurological connections which will develop into an ability to manage emotions later in life. Animal research suggests that the urge to touch animals is biological and may trace back to human-wolf relationships .This “seeking” of touch is hard wired in us and in other mammals as well–think of your pet coming to you for contact. It has been discovered that the body’s endogenous opioid system drives this need. When we are socially isolated, our levels of endogenous opioids fall which triggers the need to seek social contact. For addicts, the natural ebb and flow of endogenous opioids is interrupted. In making contact with animals, that urge for connection is rekindled. Therapeutic interaction with a horse inevitably involves touch. Even people who are deeply afraid of horses will work hard on their fears in order to be in contact. When asked what they might want from an equine interaction people will often report “I want to be able to touch him.” Or “I want to be close to her.” Certainly this tool is infrequently used in traditional talk therapy settings as it should be. One of the advantages of having the horses available for this touch seeking is that there is no illusion that the horse will play another role such as parent, enabler, or spouse. While all of these emotions may be visited, it is clear to participants that the horse will stay behind and be a horse. This allows the richness of touch with effective containment and boundaries. Further, a client who is in contact with a horse may also feel needed by the horse. As the horse indicates a desire to be touched, clients are awakened to their ability to give. For newly recovering addicts and alcoholics, this might be the first time in years that they have the experience of having something to offer. The process awakens compassion.

3. Laughter: Animal research describes seven ingrained emotional systems of the mammalian brain: SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC and PLAY. Each of these systems occurs from the instinctual action programs of the brain. There is a recent theory that addictions and alcoholism may result from a thwarted SEEKING instinct — a natural instinct gone awry. The PLAY instinct is also hard wired into all mammals. Recent research shows that addiction damages this instinct. For example, psychostimulants like methamphetamine reduce playfulness. In addition, substances of addiction actually get wired into the reward pathway in the deep brain causing the addict to lose the ability to feel joy. When an addict uses a substance of abuse, there is a huge release of dopamine in the reward pathway then a deep depletion. For those addicts who have lost the sense of joy, re-engaging in natural play can be of help. Movement is fundamental in reprogramming the pleasure pathway. The movement of play combined with laughter is even more effective in evoking the emotions which emerge from play — joy, glee, happiness and playfulness itself. Horses play naturally among themselves for no other “purpose” than to play. They recognize a playful intention and will join in the game. In EFP we can dance with horses, run with horses, dress them up, paint with them, make games with each other, and laugh. Even a very “unserious” EFP session offers healing of the joy pathway.

4. Sense of SELF: Panskepp (2002) defines SELF as a “neuro-symbolic homunculus, grounded in action urges, from which a variety of core emotional states of being could emerge. This means that emotion and motor action are essential for a sense of self to develop. We only recognize changes in our own states of being based in bodily sensation and movement. There is a map of the bodily state in the right brain which facilitates this process. Moving in the world helps us know who we are because we can have our own felt sense of what is occurring within us. This gives us an inner felt sense of what is going on with others. Without this sense of self and understanding of other, social bonding would be impossible. Horses’ entire understanding of their world comes from an intuitive and instinctual perception which is gained through their body and senses. When engaged in EFP we move toward that way of metabolizing the world. We watch the horses and begin to have a sense of what they are feeling, what they are demonstrating, what their intention is. The equine work wakes up this bodily sensing which drugs and alcohol have so effectively numbed. Additionally, because we are outdoors and engaged in movement, the information we are receiving through our senses is quite different than in alcoholic isolation or drug related activities which are often too stimulating or violent or totally numbing. We have an opportunity to see nature and the beautiful horses, feel the breeze or the softness of a horse muzzle, hear the trees rustling, the horse nickering, the birds singing, our heart pounding, feel energy in our arms and legs and smell the horsey smells of leather, manure and hay. Each of these experiences offers a possibility for reprogramming the addicted brain and awakening the sensitive heart and soul — the Self — of the alcoholic/addict.

The gifts that the horses give go beyond brain healing. In our interactions we discover an honest and nonjudgmental possibility of relationship. We interact and are effected but also effect the other. This profound place of tenderness is a healing matrix that is similar to meditation or tai chi. The difference, however, is that the healing occurs in relationship and within the container of the human therapist and group. These connections, while fleeting, offer a real felt experience of self and other, of compassion, of affection and bonding, and of trust which are carried into life.

Gail Hromadko is a Marriage & Family Therapist and Certified Equine Interaction Professional-Mental Health with 30+ years’ experience in treating alcoholism/addictions. She has a private practice in Palm Springs and Morongo Valley, CA. Her facility, Five Hearts Healing Arts, focuses on equine facilitated psychotherapy and other alternative healing modalities. She can be reached at 760-323-2524 or via the website: