The words ‘horse’ and ‘therapy’ have been linked together from a very early age; horseback riding was considered therapeutic as far back as Hippocrates and there is evidence of its use in 18th century Germany to reduce attacks of hypochondria and hysteria. It is also generally believed that Martin Buber’s (1937) dialogic “I-Thou” experience was conceived in the context of his relationship with a horse.
The use of horses in the field of work with physical disabilities (Riding for the Disabled) has been well documented since the 1950s but it is only over the last 20 years that the psychotherapeutic dimension of the human horse connection has begun to be explored.
And, of course, horses along with many other animals have been used as ‘feel good’ approaches for many years. So what is it about a horse that makes this work different from other animal assisted therapy models?
Firstly, horses are large and powerful, which creates a natural opportunity for someone to overcome fear and develop confidence and provides a wonderful metaphor for dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations in life.
Horses are very much like humans in that they are:
• social animals
• they have roles within their herds
• they would rather be with their peers
• they have distinct personalities, attitudes and moods
• they like to have fun
• they can be stubborn
• and an approach which works for one horse does not necessarily work with another.
But importantly, horses are non-judgemental and listen without interruption or offering advice; clients feel unconditionally accepted.
Horses are prey animals and are therefore in a constant state of awareness for any signs of danger. They are highly sensitive and intuitive and this hypersensitivity makes them excellent mirrors to human’s deep emotions – emotions that may be unknown to the client (on the edge of their awareness) or that they are unable to express for themselves.
Horses are sensitive to non-verbal communication and respond to what messages the clients give them in the moment so they respond directly to any approach the client makes. However, anger doesn’t work with horses, and a person interacting with them will be required to recognize, understand and begin to manage their emotions and responses to keep the horse from withdrawing. In order for clients to accomplish activities they have to recognise the impact of their behaviour on the horse and learn that sometimes a different approach is necessary to achieve their goals.
The horses are part of the therapeutic team and provide the mental health and equine specialists with lots of information by the way they react to the clients – information that brings awareness of current patterns and motivates change to new ones. They also show the client if they are being effective or not; this way clients can explore through trial and error what works for them and what doesn’t
Developing empathy for the horses creates an awareness of others’ feelings and needs. Individuals who learn to treat a horse with kindness and respect and responsibility are empowered to begin to do the same in their relationship with others outside the arena.
Earning the respect and cooperation of a 1000lb horse can dramatically increase a client’s sense of personal power and confidence. This is particularly true for clients who have been abused or experienced powerlessness in their lives. The experience of personal control with a horse can boost a person’s sense of their own ability to handle events in their life that previously made them feel powerless. This is particularly relevant to the need to set boundaries. Learning to trust a horse can be a restoration of trust in one’s self.
Through activities with the horses life metaphors are created and clients are able to identify areas of change as they relate those activities and outcomes to their individual lives.
Churchtown, St Hilary
This website and its content is copyright of Equus Solutions - © Equus Solutions 2018. All rights reserved.
Improving Mental Health Through Equine Assisted Therapies