The gentle art of equine-assisted therapy is creating a safe space for people to overcome relationship and mental health issues by simply playing and connecting with horses.
If the thought of sitting on a couch and hashing out your problems with a stranger seems more terrifying than overcoming them, spending time in nature with the majestic horse might just be the healing path for you.
Equine-assisted therapy has been building in its appeal over the past decade since studies began on its effectiveness, with the unique characteristics of the horse providing a therapy experience like no other. Owner/Manager and Facilitator of Horse Vision Chris Scott says she has clients from the age of six up to 86 coming in for help with a range of issues from personal development including communication skills and fine-tuning focus through to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.
While the therapy often works well in conjunction with a psychologist, for those who have difficulty discussing feelings the horse’s ability to respond to human body language picks up on emotions in ways that human therapists often can’t.
“The horses reflect human body language even if it’s really subtle, so it might come from what’s happening inside us rather than what we’re pretending on the outside,” Chris says. “They respond to our innermost thoughts and feelings, and see what’s really happening.”
Their ability to pick up on non-verbal feedback is thought to be due to their highly attuned natural instincts derived from being a prey or ‘flight’ animal.
“Human beings and dogs, for example, are predators whereas a horse runs from danger and is really connected to their natural instincts,” Chris explains. “They seem to know what the person needs, whether they need to disconnect and walk off if the person is uncomfortable or not present, or some of the horses will lean in and almost give the person a hug by putting their head on them as if they’re telling them ‘it’s really okay’.”
A session with Chris begins without the horses, using body scan techniques to become really present before meeting the horses. According to Chris, fifty percent of the time a horse will follow a person as if saying ‘that’s my person’ or alternatively, the person is drawn to a specific horse. From there, connection is established by grooming the horse before leading them around the yard and playing games.
“The activities are designed to help people be really present, like the horses, because a big thing with anxiety and depression is people get stuck in their heads and think about stuff too much so the horses teach them to stay present and deal with what is happening now,” Chris says.
Beyond our relationship with ourselves, Chris says the interaction with the horses can greatly benefit the way we communicate with others.
“When someone is having troubles with a relationship, they often get caught in it and can’t see that other people might think differently from them,” Chris says. “They think, well we’re all human beings so they must think the same as me, but really we all think so differently to each other. So when we use the horses, they don’t expect the horse to think like them and they put themselves into the position of learning about their own individual way of communicating. They can then translate that and use this new understanding with people as they can hear what the other person is actually trying to say much better. It regularly fixes the problem in the relationship.”
So the horses provide us with all of this therapy and personal development – but what’s in it for them? “The basis of what we do is having fun, we’re not delving into everyone’s problems, we play games with the horses and help the horses relax and rebalance them too – they love it!” Chris insists. “Often when we’re unwell, we can become very self-focused as we try to fix ourselves but working with the horses you improve their lives as you improve your own.”
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