When I took up horse riding in middle age, I thought I was simply rewarding myself for having left a dysfunctional marriage. It turns out, I was giving myself a gift of healing that I didn’t even know was there for the taking.
The longer I was around the horses, the more I realised I was not only learning how to ride properly, I was also learning how to be the sort of person I wanted to be: clear, calm, focused on goals without being a perfectionist about them — a person who was becoming emotionally stronger as well as physically.
I guessed it had to be down to the horses because that was the only new thing in my life, but surely that was impossible? It is completely possible, and there’s a whole world of healing that employs horses as therapeutic partners, covering client bases from children struggling with autism and ADD, to people of all ages with learning and physical challenges.
I’ve seen it work with psychological issues, too, and not just in my own experience. It’s a fascinating field that’s growing by leaps and bounds, but what is it all about?
Katrina O’Donoghue offers Equine Assisted Activities to special needs clients with Doodles, her miniature horse. Visits From Doodles goes to nursing homes, schools and other care facilities, and interaction with the mini enhances the lives of people who have the pleasure of meeting him.
“Horses are very powerful animals in strength and mind,” she says. “The client may not feel comfortable talking or interacting with others but are very at ease with a horse.
“Some clients can open up about issues while being around the horse, where if it was in a more sterile, clinical environment, they wouldn’t be as open in sharing their thoughts and feelings.”
Philippe D’Helft is the Irish Network Coordinator for EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) and puts their effectiveness as therapeutic partners down to the way horses work in the wild.
“They are hyper vigilant and have constant awareness of each other and their place in the herd, and they apply the same to us,” he says.
“They are constantly watching our body language, our breathing, the way we move and then they mirror that. And then depending on the way we behave, they react a certain way.”
“I think one of the biggest differences is that people are less aware of what they are doing, thinking and saying in a horse environment,” says Alison Bush, Operations Director for ELISTA Education in Laois, which offers training in therapy, education and intervention services. “The horse distracts them and allows them to be honest in their behaviour, thoughts and feelings — and the clients don’t have the chance to figure out what they think the therapist or counsellor wants them to say!”
HOW IT WORKS
When Philippe brings in a client for their first session, most of the work done is in pairing a horse with the person.
That first horse will accompany them through their therapeutic journey, but he says: “There’s always another horse that they struggle to make a connection with. When they do make that connection, it’s actually more powerful because they’ve worked for it. In making that connection with the horse that’s a bit more hesitant, that’s where an awful lot of the learning comes in.
“They have to change how they approach the horse, and those changes can be applied to their lives.”
He says the EAGALA exercises are basic, and don’t vary much. Props are assembled in the arena — objects that are easy to carry and safe for the horses to be around, like lightweight poles and rings, small traffic cones, colourful buckets — and they are used to create obstacle courses, or to build areas that symbolise certain aspects of their lives.
Working with a client that struggles with addiction, they may notice an area the horse chose not to go to.
“We’d say we noticed the horses went with them in other areas they’ve built, and were happy to share those spaces with them, except for one, and the client will say, ‘Well, it’s generally not a great place to be, nobody wants to go there with me’ and we ask what the space is and the answer is ‘The bookies’. The fact they see it for themselves is very powerful.”
VALUE OF LEARNING
I was right about the horses helping me feel better about myself, and it was giving myself the freedom to get out of my head. Alison agrees. “Being happy or sad are emotional feelings — feeling you are no good or worthless is mental,” she explains.
“Unfortunately, partly due to the economic downturn, there are a significant number of people who don’t feel good about themselves.”
Sometimes people who are long-term unemployed can experience such mental challenges. For these people, working with horses has all the benefits of being outside in the fresh air, interacting with the horse and being able to learn more skills.
“In a equestrian centre I volunteered in, I met a lovely man who was experiencing such low worth,” she says.
“He prepared the horses for lessons for special needs children, groomed them, tacked them, led them out, and he was so valued in that role, this boosted his confidence and he felt better about himself. Prior to that he had been very lonely and very low since his retirement.”
The ability to engage with this work for one’s well-being is not just something out of a Hollywood movie. As far as Ireland is concerned, there are some challenges in terms of accepting therapy at all, much less one in which an animal figures largely.
“Being a horsey country, I think we have been a bit slower to embrace the horse in this way,” says Alison. “In many countries, thousands of people have never interacted with a horse, but in Ireland, even if you live in a city there’s probably a few backyards with horses in nearby.”
As far as the most common challenges he’s noticed in this country, Philippe feels “the two biggest things we have come across are depression and addiction — and very often they’re linked”.
He is very optimistic about spreading the word about equine options. “EAGALA are providing an awful lot of support for Ireland at the moment,” he says. “And they envision a world where everybody has access to equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning. What I’m trying to do is to build up a network of practitioners in Ireland so there is access for everybody.”
Alsion agrees. “To my knowledge, most of the work is with children with special needs, but I do not feel this type of work is exclusive to this population.
“Over the last few years mental health has been made much more public, and in time I think the concept of any type of mental health therapy will be embraced a little more... I hope so!”
Katrina O’Donoghue shares a case study in which a client suffering with dementia found relief through Equine Assisted Learning.
“One client that improved dramatically over time suffered from dementia and showed signs of a lack of interest in everyday things. On the first day, the client was very quiet and not sure about meeting the horse. I encouraged the client to take the horse for a short walk — this involved the client getting exercise without even realising it.
“As the weeks went on, I made the walking exercises with the horse more technical, gradually lengthening the distance they would walk.
“Every week, I encouraged the client to tie a ribbon around a section of the horse’s mane — this took a huge effort and determination. Every week I gave them a narrower piece of ribbon to use. The difference in the way the client was able to pick up and hold the ribbon and tying a bow weekly was amazing.
“Their appetite improved and they were more vocal to the people around them, too. The client was able to see how well they improved in so many different areas of their well-being, it was so rewarding to be a part of it.”