British Columbia

How horses can be therapeutic for people with addiction

A psychologist says horses can be therapeutic for people with addiction because connecting with animals first can be easier than connecting with humans, which in turn allows her clients to become more vulnerable.

Psychologist says equine therapy helps her clients be more vulnerable

Kalli Sedgemore poses with therapy horse Rosie. Sedgemord said Rosie helped him become a functioning addict. (Alex Migdal/CBC)

As B.C.'s overdose crisis enters its third year, some people with addiction want the public to know horses can help.

Kali Sedgemore, a crystal meth addict who graduated from equine therapy, hasn't seen Rosie in years but still finds himself at ease with her.

But his first session five years ago felt very different.

"I was kind of nervous, I'm just a timid person anyway, but it was kind of nerve-wracking at first," he said.

Out of foster care into addiction

After Sedgemore aged out of foster care, he became addicted to cocaine and alcohol, which led to his crystal meth addiction.

In his early 20s, he was also the victim of a crime, which landed him in B.C.'s Crime Victim Assistance Program.

As part of the program's financial assistance for recovery, Sedgemore was put in play therapy, a method typically reserved for children. However, as an older teen at the time, Sedgemore said he found the program's use of puppets and games condescending.

"It was just something I couldn't do."

He was then referred to equine therapy, where he quickly found solace. Sedgemore graduated from the Richmond, B.C., program in half a year after Rosie helped him overcome his anxiety and PTSD.

Sedgemore said Rosie helped him gain control over the drug.

"You can't be high around a horse. If you're high around a horse, the horse will get mad at you, so it has taught me to be a functional addict."

Lending a helping hoof

Rosie has all the characteristics of a great therapy horse, according to program leader Rosanne Johnson.

She's safe and calm, but perhaps even more importantly, she challenges clients to overcome the barriers preventing them from living their lives to the fullest.

"What we hope is those really great things like overcoming anxiety, calming down, being less isolated, making connections with other people will carry on with them when they leave the barn," said Johnson.

How horses help keep addicts at ease


2 years ago
Kali Sedgemore, a crystal meth addict, has found that using horse therapy helped him gain control over his addiction. 1:12

Sedgemore is proof of the program's success. He's developed friendships, has a steady job and has a stable living situation.

Even normal tasks like using transit are now manageable for Sedgemore, who once found trips from Vancouver to Richmond impossible.

"I'd jump off the bus every few stops because I'd panic on the bus," he said. "It's also helped me make decisions a lot better, I think. Before, I'd just jump right into things and not even think about it." 

Leading the charge against the overdose crisis

Johnson started the program six years ago after deciding to combine her love of horses with her profession.

After learning to ride and doing extensive research about what breeds make the best therapy horses, perhaps it was fate that led Johnson to buy Rosie,  the same nickname given her by her friends and family.

She says horse therapy lets her connect with her clients.

"There's not a lot of trust of people and people tend to trust horses before they'll trust someone else. So they'll be vulnerable with the horse and then maybe they might be vulnerable with me."

Psychologist Rosanne Johnson said working with animals helps her connect to clients she's had trouble building connections with in the past. (Alex Migdal/CBC)

Sessions typically involve working on simple interactions with the horse to build trust.

"As we work together with Rosie, they gain confidence and inner strength and they also gain sort of a sense of accomplishment, said Johnson. "It's not like a dog [where] you go greet a dog and the dog's wagging its tail. Horses are not like that. You really do have to earn it."

Johnson's program is small and she's typically limited to one-on-one work. It's also, to her knowledge, one of a handful available in the province. She hopes to expand it to group work and buy more horses in the near future.

Sedgemore believes the program should be a more common treatment option for addicts, whether their goal is to get sober or to make their addiction more manageable.

"I think this would really help people just to calm yourself down and really focus on things and process what's going on in this crisis too."

With files from Anita Bathe