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Horses Help Addicts at Serenity Rehab in Chiang Rai



Horses are a new partner in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction. Serenity Rehab in Chiang Rai is the first place in Thailand to offer this complementary evidence-based therapy.

North of the Chiang Rai Airport, just before the town of Mae Chan, there are two very different, very special places. One is a sprawling horse ranch with a renowned expert in Equine-Assisted Therapy. The other, a few kilometers away, is a private inpatient substance addiction treatment center. Over the past few months, something special has emerged from their collaboration.

Serenity Rehab Thailand, an addictions rehab treating substance dependence, now includes Equine-assisted Therapy as a part of the research-based treatment therapies it offers clients. Equine-assisted Therapy, aka Horse Therapy is an emerging field with promising research results, and is more visible and better known in North America and Europe.

Equine-Assisted Therapy and Equicoaching

There are different kinds of Equine-Assisted Therapies, including therapeutic horseback riding. The most common therapy with horses is Equine-Assisted Learning, which does not include riding, but interacting with horses in a paddock. The main term used in Europe for this kind of learning experience is Equicoaching.

Apart from complementary psychotherapeutic uses, many organizations have used Equicoaching as a effective part of leadership training and team-building.

In A Systematic Review of Effectiveness of Complementary and Adjunct Therapies and Interventions Involving Equines published in Health Psychology in 2013 (Vol. 32, No. 4, 418-432), the authors found that while there are a limited number of studies, those which are well-designed have significance. This means that from a research and fact-based approach to treatment, Equine-Assisted Therapy is a promising adjunct therapy.

There are increasing numbers of substance addiction programs incorporating Equine-Assisted Therapy, especially in North America. For Thailand, this is the first.

Appaloosa Stables is a sprawling horse ranch on 250 rai with 28 horses, horse riding, lessons, and other activities. Training and Equicoaching is led by Eric Van Poucke, originally from Belgium. Eric has been working professionally with horses and equine-assisted learning for decades, and has published four books on Equicoaching.

Serenity Rehab Thailand is the a Drug and Alcohol addiction treatment center, with a core abstinence program that follows the Minnesota Model, as do nearly all rehabs within Thailand and a majority abroad. Founded by Theo de Vries on the island of Koh Samui, Serenity relocated to Chiang Rai several years ago, in order to have a more secluded and conducive location for addiction treatment.

Clients Find Equicoaching Helpful

Working with large mammals is not for everyone. Equicoaching is included in the treatment program, but is an optional component and is not required if clients do not want to participate. For those who do participate and want to participate more frequently, additional Equicoaching sessions can be scheduled on the weekend (with an additional fee paid to Appaloosa Stables).


Clients have very little preconception of what Equicoaching is. In brief, the idea is to get the horse to do things, like follow you into parts of the paddock, or hop over a bough on the ground. Horses are very intuitive and can sense the mood of humans, and reflect that affect. The horse is best understood as a prey animal, with a highly developed fight-or-flight response. They are deeply attuned to their environment, and highly communicative and responsive to others in the herd.

With humans, the horses are able to pick up on mood and emotion, and on the positive and negative characteristics of thoughts.

I was surprised that the horse feels what I feel. When I was confident, the horses walked up to me, but when I was feeling less confident, then the horses stopped. They really can feel what you feel. — Serenity Client

The horse acts as a mirror, and for each client the experience is individual.

The horse therapy is very individual. We come as a group, but each one of us gets something unique and individual out of it. It helps with self-reflection, as the horse reflects your moods, your thoughts, your emotions and feelings. And as the horse reflects these things it helps for us to self-reflect, to reflect on our selves, individually and spiritually. — Serenity Client

Clients learn in a direct, experiential way how their thoughts, feelings, and emotions have an impact in the world.

I get a lot from counseling and I can speak about my feelings, but the horses show me how I feel, and what impression that makes on those around me. — Serenity Client

A majority of clients who do participate feel that it is valuable, and that it provides a form of experiential learning that complements the main 12-step program that is the focus of the Minnesota Model.

This goes very well with the 12-step program, which works with our heart, with our whole being, changing behavior, changing our way of thinking. — Serenity Client

Working with the horses is like working the steps, you can’t force it. It is a process that you are in, and you have to trust it, and that is what I saw with the horses. — Serenity Client

Learning to trust the process of substance addiction recovery, and learning to trust themselves, Serenity Rehab clients have found an unlikely ally in a stable of horses, and an expert in Equicoaching, just down the road. Some days it seems Chiang Rai has an extra dose of Serendipity waiting around the bend.

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