It’s definitely not news that being with animals can improve our overall wellbeing dramatically. However, amidst talks of growing mental health issues within Australia and New Zealand, more people are turning to alternative, or complementary practices to treat various issues.
One practice in particular has been gaining traction amongst public and professionals alike.
Equine therapy is now being used to help treat conditions such as addiction, PTSD, Autism Spectrum Disorder and depression, as well as many other mental health issues.
What horses have over other animals used in therapy, is their innate sensitivity to human emotion. Horses have evolved to live in herds and pick up on changes in body language in other animals, in order to survive. This, paired with thousands of years of domestication, has turned their animal instinct into a human one.
A horse’s ability to mirror and respond to human behaviour and emotions allows therapists, to have greater insights into individual patients’ psychology, when they are introduced to the animals.
Horses also have the ability to feel a humans’ heart beat within four-feet of the patient and research indicates that horses have an amazing ability to synchronise their heart-beats with humans.
Learning how to interact with the horses, be around them and to adjust your own emotions to keep the horse calm, is part of the initial introduction to equine therapy.
“With an anxious child or an angry child, the horse will pick up and respond to that. The children have to learn to reflect on their feelings and change their behaviour,” says Eliza Henry-Jones, equine therapist with Odyssey House Victoria.
“As for the more withdrawn or disassociated children who can be harder to reach, the horse can become a point of connection – a way for a therapist to start talking to a child.”
Sometimes the horses will be used as an insight into the patient, with children especially tending to project their own feelings onto the horse or confiding in the horse, before opening up to the therapist.
At Horses for Hope in Victoria, the horses are also going through a form of therapy, with many suffering from their own abandonment and behavioural issues and in need of treatment.
Colin Emonson, manager of the program said the aim “is to help a horse go from thinking ‘here’s a new person – this could be trouble’ to ‘thank you – I know you’ll be good to me.”
“But it’s more complex than just feeling good around animals. When clients can say to themselves ‘this hurt horse feels better because of me’, they have a new sense of efficacy. They can start to see themselves not as someone with a problem but as someone who’s competent, calm and who can forge a connection with a horse – they can start to build a new story about themselves.”