by Coral Harrison
Equine assisted psychotherapy is a powerful way for us to connect to ourselves, the natural environment and our inner knowing. It provides opportunities for new insights into relationship patterns; inner thoughts and beliefs that may hold us back from making changes in our lives.
These difficulties can be mirrored by the horses and how they respond to us in the sessions. This approach offers a unique way to reconnect to ourselves through a relationship with animals and some shared experiences.
Which problems can be helped using therapy with horses?
Therapy with horses can help adults and children with a range of mental health problems including social anxiety, depression, ADHD, autism, addiction, trauma and much more.
Sometimes the problem is harder to define, it may be a change of mood; an increase in stress and/or anxiety or a sense that life has lost some of its pleasure – any of these may be motivating you to seek therapy.
The first step is admitting to yourself that you need help, the next step is finding a therapist. There are so many to choose from online and the idea of talking to a stranger in a room can bring on anxiety. Therapy with horses is a useful alternative to talking therapies. Horses provide non-verbal opportunities to gain self awareness and reconnect to your inner knowing but without the need to talk through difficult past experiences.
How does this work?
Horses live in herds and need other horses for their physical and emotional wellbeing. Like humans, they are essentially social mammals. The size of our social group will range depending on our personality and experience. In a session the interaction with horses can parallel our lives outside; how we approach relationships, communicate, judge ourselves and therefore offer opportunities to notice what is happening in our brains and bodies as we engage in a new experience.
Horses are very connected to their instincts and environments. They can teach us how to reconnect to ourselves. As mammals that used to be ‘someone’s dinner’, they are highly attuned to their senses which alerts them to potential dangers.
We have this ability too. As children we were born connected to our bodies, our inner sensations and emotions. Life around us meant that we had to adapt to fit in to our families, school and wider society – sometimes taking us into the role of helper, carer, leader or follower. Therapy with horses can give us the opportunity to step back, find a different perspective – and an ‘ah’ moment.
Therapy with horses can help clients explore a range of issues such as relationship difficulties. People who struggle with being assertive and being able to say ‘no’ can be helped by horses. Boundaries are a normal part of how horses communicate and relate to each other. Horses can teach us about our own boundaries and through our interactions with them, we can develop our ability to say no and walk away from situations that are harmful to us.
Therapy with horses can also support children and adults who struggle to talk about their difficulties. This therapy has been proven to help people who have experienced trauma. Research shows improvements in psychological distress, improvement of mood and decreases in challenging behaviours in children.
What happens in a therapy session with horses?
Sessions take place in the outdoors often in a rural location. Therapy with horses is a team approach which involves a psychotherapist, an equine specialist and horses. The job of the team is to facilitate the person’s experience through the experiences with the horses. A first session usually starts with a walk to the pasture and time to observe the horses before being invited to go out into the space. Observation helps to familiarise the client with their surroundings and bring them into the present moment through using their senses.
The team do not know what will happen in the session. Their role is to facilitate a space for people to explore the issue that they are bringing to therapy, if they know it. The story and meaning that emerges from this is the clients. The sessions can connect people to both their inner and outer world. The team offer a safe space for an individual to find their own solutions. Sometimes the session can powerfully connect clients to feelings and awarenesses that were hidden. Processing can happen in the session and between sessions, through dreams, insights, emotions or gut feelings.
Therapy with horses is an effective alternative to talking therapies. There is a growing evidence base that supports this approach.
Coral Harrison runs ChangeWays, an equine therapy centre based in Cumbria.
ChangeWays are interested in finding a base nearer to Dumfries. If you have a herd that is kept naturally and would be interested in ChangeWays providing this therapy from your venue, please get in touch with Coral using the details above.